To get your hands on any government aid, you have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is a worksheet created by the government that's used to take a snapshot of you and your family’s financial situation. Colleges use this worksheet to help determine how much financial need you have and how much money they should give you. Completing this worksheet also makes you eligible for financial help from the United States government and could make you eligible for certain awards from your college. Here is how to survive:
Filling out the FAFSA is a long and tedious process. It is a government form so it can be super confusing, kind of like filing your taxes. Because this sucker is so tedious (but so necessary), plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to fill it out. And remember, you cannot fill this out alone (if you are a dependent student); your parents need to be involved. This can get a little bit tricky if your parents are, say, divorced, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time.
Before you get started, we recommend packing yourself a little FAFSA survival kit:
• Snacks, preferably comfort food
• Your FAFSA PIN and your parents' PIN (Apply for Personal Identification Numbers here.)
• Your parents' most recent tax returns (1040s)
• Your parents' most recent W2s
• Your W2s (if you have a job)
• Your most recent tax returns (if you filed)
• Your driver's license number and social security number
• Your parents' (and step-parents') social security numbers and birth dates
• Your current bank and savings account statements
• Your parents' current bank and savings account statements
• Information on your parents' investment accounts
• Info on child support (if your parents are divorced)
• Your parents' business or farm records
Now that you've got your kit assembled, head over to Fafsa.ed.gov to start filling out the form.
RED ALERT: There are other FAFSA websites that are not affiliated with the real government one. Remember, FAFSA stands for FREE Application for Federal Student Aid, so if the website you are at is asking for money, it is for the service of filling out your forms, not for the application itself. Watch out for these sites in particular:
For some specific tips on filling out the FAFSA, check out Shmoop's tips on Hacking the FAFSA.
Tackling the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE
Some private colleges also require students to fill out the CSS PROFILE. Shmoop has a love/hate relationship with the PROFILE. The PROFILE is a form from your good friends at the College Board, the lovely folks who run things like the SAT and AP exams. (Groan.) The PROFILE is a financial aid form that many private colleges require in addition to the FAFSA. (Not sure if the schools to which you are applying use the PROFILE? Click here or visit your colleges' financial aid websites.) Let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of the PROFILE.
• It is more detailed than the FAFSA and lets you provide more information about your family and your family's expenses than the FAFSA does.
• It has this great text box near the end that allows you to tell a financial aid office anything else you want them to know about your finances. Since most families' financial situations are complicated, this can be super useful, especially if you have a circumstance that is not addressed on the FAFSA form such as a recent job loss or unusually high medical bills.
• Because it asks you more detailed questions than the FAFSA, the PROFILE can help you become eligible for more financial aid. Sometimes much more.
• It is another form.
• You thought the FAFSA was long? The PROFILE is way longer. (But, hey, that is why it provides a better picture of your family's finances.)
• Because the PROFILE paints a more accurate financial portrait of your family, there are not as many places to shelter assets. The PROFILE will take factors like funds stored in retirement and home equity into account that the FAFSA does not, meaning you could lose financial aid.
• It costs $25 to use the PROFILE, plus another $16 for each college you send it to. Paying to become eligible for financial aid is lame.