How to Correctly Fill Out Your Financial Aid Application
Applying for financial aid may not be as hard as it looks, but it can be time consuming. Errors and failures to answer questions can really hurt you:
- They can lead to serious delays in processing or approving your application.
- You can miss out on financial aid that you would be entitled to if the application had been filled out correctly.
- If you receive federal financial aid because your FAFSA contained incorrect information, you're obligated to repay it.
To help you avoid these consequences, we have compiled a list of areas to pay specific attention to. This advice is based on our research on why the Department of Education's FAFSA central processing system (CPS) rejects applications and what colleges and universities report are the most common errors made by FAFSA applicants.
The CPS Process
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When the CPS receives your FAFSA, it runs quality control checks looking for errors, and incomplete or inconsistent data. Then CPS runs database matches comparing the information in your FAFSA to the Social Security, Selective Service, citizenship and Veterans Administration databases. After the review, CPS generates warning and assumption codes, and the dreaded "reject codes." When CPS flags your FAFSA with these codes, you must resolve the issues before a college or university can issue a financial aid award, leading to serious delays in the processing of your application.
The Golden Rules for completing the FAFSA are:
- Read the directions and the questions very carefully.
- Then, fill in every field - clearly, accurately, and completely.
Colleges and universities report that the most frequent FAFSA error is leaving
questions unanswered. They and the Department of Education exhort you to read
the instructions and questions carefully. It sounds stupid, but if people
didn't commonly make mistakes, they wouldn't repeat the same rules over and
over like when you took your SATs. You can download the instructions here:
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Social Security Number
Date of Birth
Name: Missing first or last name
Your social security number drives everything in the financial aid process. You have to get it right. One way to help ensure that you get it right is complete the FAFSA online. Online fields can't contain illegible characters. If you're completing a paper FAFSA, you must write legibly. If you can't write legibly, complete the FAFSA online.
In the FAFSA, your name must be exactly the same as the name on your social security card. Your birthday in the FAFSA must be accurate. Otherwise, when the CPS checks the Social Security Database, it will issue a reject code because your name or birthday in the database don't match what you put in the FAFSA.
The same is true with respect to your parents. If your father's, or your mother's, name in the FAFSA doesn't match the social security number that you provided, of if you provide a social security number for only one of your parents, the processing of your FAFSA can be seriously delayed.
Marital Status & Household
Your FAFSA will be tagged with reject codes if it reports your marital status or the marital status of your parents incorrectly. You're subject to a reject code if your FAFSA reports an unusually high number of family members.
Following the FAFSA instructions will help you answer these questions correctly. The instructions don't cover every possibility. If you are not sure of the answer, consult with your school's financial aid administrator or the call Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID.
You are married if on the day you complete and submit the FAFSA you are legally married. If you are getting married the following week, you are not married. If you are separated or separating, but don't have a final divorce decree, you are married.
Questions regarding marital status and household are confusing, because parents
in the FAFSA doesn’t necessary mean your biological parents, and because
so many people are divorced, separated or remarried.
If your biological or adoptive parents are alive and remain remarried, they’re
your parents for FAFSA purposes. If a biological parent remarried, she or
he and their new spouse are parents – even if the new spouse didn’t
adopt you – for FAFSA purposes. If one of your parents has died, and
the other has not remarried, only provide answers about the surviving spouse.
If your parents are divorced, or legally separated, your parent is the person
with whom you lived the most in 12 months before the date of your FAFSA. If
your parents are not legally separated, but are informally separated and do
not live together, FAFSA treats them as if they were legally separated or
If you split time between them equally, your parent is the person who provided
you the most financial support during that 12 months.
Income and Taxes
The Department of Education reports that most FAFSA errors occur in answering the income questions. The FAFSA contains questions about your income and taxes, your spouse's (if you have one) income and taxes, and your parents' income and taxes. The numbers that FAFSA is looking for come from those peoples' federal income tax returns. The FAFSA tells you - right in the question - exactly what lines in the tax returns contain the numbers that it wants. Get out the tax returns - get the numbers from the right lines - and put them in as the answers to the questions.
This area is confusing because the meaning of the terms income, tax or household is different in income tax forms and in the FAFSA. For example, on your tax forms there are lines for "tax before credits," "tax after credits," "total tax" (which is not really your total tax), and "tax due." You don't need to be an accountant who knows which of these lines is your real tax. Simply go to the line on the tax form that the FAFSA instructions send you to, get the number, and put it in the answer.
The areas to focus on here are questions 35 and 36 in the FAFSA.
Question 35 in the July 2008-June 2009 FAFSA application asks what you (and your spouse's) adjusted gross income was in 2007. For a person that files Form 1040, adjusted gross income is the number on the bottom of the first page - line 37. For a person who files Form 1040A, it's the number on line 21. For a person who files Form 1040EZ, it's the number on line 4.
FAFSA Question 36 asks what you (and your spouse's) income tax was in 2007. Income tax is the amount on IRS Form 1040, line 57. It is the amount in IRS Form 1040A, line 35. And for 1040EZ filers, it is the amount on line 4.
Drug related Convictions
You can get a reject code if you answered yes to a drug related conviction FAFSA question. Despite a conviction, you may still be eligible for student aid from any of the federal government, state government or the school, so be sure to answer question 31 correctly. Go here for some help, http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/fotw0506/help/fotw12b.htm, and be sure to fill out the drug conviction worksheet.
Your FAFSA will be tagged with a reject code if you and any parents for which you provided answers don't sign it, electronically or with ink. Apparently, this happens more often that you would think.
The government recommends that if you have questions about federal student aid or how to complete FAFSA, that you use www.FederalStudentAid.ed.gov, that you call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID or contact the financial aid administrator at the school that you attend or want to attend.