I Want to Fill Out My FAFSA to Get Student Aid

Alden Wicker

Think of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as your golden ticket to educational opportunity. By filling out the FAFSA, you can apply for grants, scholarships and federal loans to help pay for college or graduate school.

It’s like the lottery—with a much higher chance of winning! That’s because, depending on your financial standing, you could receive thousands of dollars to pay for your or your child’s education.

According to a study conducted by Sallie Mae, 81% of families of undergrad students completed the FAFSA form for the 2012-2013 academic year. But there’s no reason why that other 19% shouldn’t have applied. “We always encourage families to complete that first step,” says Sallie Mae representative Patricia Christel. ”About 70% receive financial aid, which could include federal loans. Some aid is available regardless of financial standing.”

RELATED: 9 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About … Financial Aid for College

Christel gives us some tips for filling out your FAFSA like a federal aid pro:

Find out your deadline(s).

The FAFSA application season to apply for the academic year, starting in the fall, begins on January 1st. Deadlines for state aid vary from state to state–the first deadline is February 15th for Connecticut, while others are in March, April or May. Some states have no deadline at all. You should check the deadline for the state in which you are hoping to attend school or where you currently live. If you missed the state deadline, you should still fill out the FAFSA because federal aid is still available–you can apply for it at any time during the academic year.

If you’re 24 and under, get your parents on board with the process.

If you’re applying for undergraduate aid and you’re 24 or younger, you have to work with your parents to fill out the form, even if you won’t receive financial help from them. Graduate students don’t need parents’ info, even if they are under the age of 24.

Do your taxes early.

The Department of Education uses your family’s tax information to determine your eligibility for aid, and providing your most up-to-date tax information makes the process much easier and faster. As a bonus, three weeks after you electronically file your taxes, you can transfer the information electronically right from the IRS onto the FAFSA form at the Department of Education’s website. (This only applies to parents who file jointly or single parents. Unfortunately, you cannot transfer married, filing separately tax information over electronically yet.)

RELATED: You can find everything you need to know about doing your taxes in the Knowledge Center and our Ace Your Taxes Bootcamp.

If, however, a deadline is coming up, and you or your parents haven’t gotten around to filing those taxes, you can still apply. While it will take more time, you can use last year’s tax information with appropriate changes for this year. For example, if your mom got a raise or dropped out of the workforce, when she completes her taxes, you can go back and update that information on the FAFSA.

Gather your documents.

You’ll need this information on hand when you apply:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your driver’s license (if any)
  • Your 2012 W-2 forms and other records of money earned
  • If you are a dependent student, your parents’ 2012 Federal Income Tax Return
  • If you are not a dependent student, your (and, if married, your spouse’s) 2012 Federal Income Tax Return
  • IRS 1040, 1040A or 1040 EZ; a foreign tax return; or a tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federal States of Micronesia or Palau
  • Your 2012 untaxed income records
  • Your current bank statements
  • Your current business and investment mortgage information; business and farm records; stock, bond and other investment records
  • Your alien registration or permanent resident card (if you are not a U.S. citizen)

Fill out the form online.

You can do that on the FAFSA website.

Contact your school(s) if you have a special financial situation.

The financial aid officers at colleges can use some professional judgment to interpret financials when handing out aid. If they see something that doesn’t make sense–like rent that is too high for your family’s income–they could award you less money. So contact the financial aid office at your college(s) of choice to let them know if your family’s income changed significantly from last year, you have high medical expenses, you are receiving subsidized housing aid or if there is anything else that could affect your eligibility for aid.

Review and understand your options.

On or around April 1st, you will receive an acceptance letter from colleges and universities, which will include the financial aid package that’s available to you. (It may include the CFPB’s suggested award letter or their own form.) Some options you might have are grants, scholarships and federal loans.

If you’re confused about anything, ask the financial aid office questions. For example: How many years will a specific scholarship be available—just freshman year or all four years? Will you have to reapply each year?

Get more free money.

If you aren’t eligible for a free ride to your college(s) of choice, find more money in the form of scholarships and grants. There are several websites that make searching easy, including FastWeb, Scholarships.com, FindTuition.com, ScholarshipExperts.com and Sallie Mae’s The College Answer.

Compare loan options.

If you’ve maxed out your scholarship and grant options, and your parents aren’t contributing enough to cover the rest, carefully compare the financial implications of the loans you’re offered:

  • Are they federal or private? Try to cover the remaining balance of your college education with federal loans, which come with low interest rates, and officers can work with you if you have a low income after graduation. (More on why federal loans are better than private loans.) Only after that—and only if you have additional tuition not yet paid for—should you turn to private loans. (Loans that originate with Sallie Mae are considered private, although Sallie Mae can also service federal loans.)
  • What is the interest rate? The lower the interest rate, the better.
  • Are the federal loans subsidized? This means that the government will pay the interest on them until you graduate, saving you money.
  • Is the interest rate variable or fixed? A variable rate might be lower now, but it could pop up to a higher percentage by the time you graduate.

RELATED: Find out why you should avoid private loans in Top Student Loan Mistakes to Avoid.

“Make sure you are building a plan to pay for the entire degree,” Christel says. ”It’s important to graduate, so select a school that you have the ability to complete.” To that end, Sallie Mae has a calculator called the Education Investment Calculator. Plug in scholarships, help from parents, pay, savings, federal loans and private loans, and the tool will calculate what your loan payments would look like after school—and what your starting salary should be after college to make those payments. If you’re applying to graduate school, use our Grad School Calculator to make sure that you’re getting value for your money.

You’re finally ready to make your financial decision—and make your education dreams come true. Good luck!