11 Common FAFSA Mistakes

common-fafsa-mistakes

The 2017–18 FAFSA® is now available! This year, the FAFSA launched 3 months earlier than usual—on October 1, 2016.

Beginning this year, you’ll also be required to use earlier (2015) tax information than in previous years. How does that benefit you? Since you’ve already filed your 2015 taxes, you’ll be able to fill out your FAFSA right away without having to estimate your financial information! (And you won’t need to update your FAFSA after you file 2016 taxes.)

Start the FAFSA button

These exciting changes are sure to save you time and make the FAFSA much easier to complete. Just make sure to take your time so you don’t make one of these mistakes:


1. Not Completing the FAFSA

I hear all kinds of reasons: “The FAFSA is too hard,” “It takes too long to complete,” I never qualify anyway, so why does it matter?” It does matter. The FAFSA is not just the application for federal grants such as the Pell Grant. It’s also the application for work-study funds, low-interest federal student loans, and even scholarships and grants offered by your state, school, or private organization. If you don’t complete the FAFSA, you could lose out on thousands of dollars to help you pay for college. The FAFSA takes little time to complete, and there is help provided throughout the application. Oh, and contrary to popular belief, there is no income cut-off when it comes to federal student aid.


2. Not Using the Correct Website

The official FAFSA website is fafsa.gov. That’s .gov! You never have to pay to complete the FAFSA. If you’re asked for credit card information, you’re not on the official government site.


3. Not Getting an FSA ID Ahead of Time

An FSA ID is a username and password that you must use to log in to certain U.S. Department of Education (ED) websites, including fafsa.gov. You AND your parent, if you’re considered a dependent student, will each need your own, separate FSA IDs if you each want to sign your FAFSA online.

Why is it so important to get an FSA ID early? Well, once you register for an FSA ID, you may need to wait up to three days before you can use it to sign your FAFSA. If you don’t want your FAFSA to be delayed, create an FSA ID now. If you’re a dependent student, have your parent create an FSA ID too. Just DO NOT share your FSA IDs with each other!

Create an FSA ID (button)


4. Waiting to Fill Out the FAFSA

If you want to get the most financial aid possible, fill out the FAFSA ASAP after October 1. Some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis and some states and colleges run out of money early, so even if your deadlines aren’t for a while, get your FAFSA done ASAP. Now that you’re required to use earlier (2015) tax information to complete the FAFSA, you have no excuse to wait!

Which brings me to…


5. Not Filing by the Deadline

As I said, you should fill out the FAFSA as soon as you can, but you should DEFINITELY fill it out before your earliest FAFSA deadline. Each state and school sets its own deadline. Some priority deadlines will be earlier this year because the FAFSA is available earlier. To maximize the amount of your financial aid, fill out your FAFSA (and any other financial aid applications that may be required by your state or school) by your earliest deadline, if not sooner!

Check FAFSA Deadlines button


6. Not using your FSA ID to start the FAFSA

When you go to log in to fafsa.gov, you will be given the option to “Enter your (the student’s) FSA ID” OR “Enter the student’s information.” If you are the student, we highly recommend choosing the first option (highlighted below) if you can. If you log in with your FSA ID, a lot of your information (name, Social Security number, date of birth, etc.) will be automatically loaded into your application.  This will prevent you from running into a common error that occurs when your verified FSA ID information doesn’t match the information on your FAFSA. Additionally, you won’t have to provide your FSA ID again to sign your FAFSA electronically.

2017-18 FAFSA Login Enter FSA ID

 

IMPORTANT: We recommend that you, the student, start the FAFSA so you can choose the option above. However, if you are a parent who is starting a FAFSA on your child’s behalf, you should use only the option on the right (because you should not know your child’s FSA ID.)


7. Not Reading Definitions Carefully

When it comes to completing the FAFSA, you want to read each definition and question carefully, because sometimes, how the FAFSA wants you to answer certain questions is not how you’d intuitively answer the question.

Here are some items that have very specific (but not intuitive) definitions according to the FAFSA:

  • Legal Guardianship: One question on the FAFSA asks: “As determined by a court in your state of legal residence, are you or were you in legal guardianship?” Many students incorrectly answer “yes” here. For this question, the definition of legal guardianship does not include your parents, even if they were appointed by a court to be your guardian. You are also not considered a legal guardian of yourself.
  • Parent: The FAFSA has very specific guidelines for which parent(s) need to be reported on the FAFSA. (Spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with who claims you on their taxes.)
  • Your Number of Family Members (Household size): The FAFSA has a specific definition of how your or your parents’ household size should be determined. Read the instructions carefully. Many students incorrectly report this number, especially when the student doesn’t physically live with the parent.
  • Number of Family Members in College: Enter the number of people in your (or your parents’) household who will attend college at the same time you attend college. Don’t forget to include yourself. Do not include your parents in this number. This number should never be greater than your number of family members.

8. Inputting Incorrect Information

Here are some examples of common errors we see on the FAFSA:

  • Confusing Parent and Student Information: I know there are many parents out there who fill out the FAFSA for their child, but remember, the FAFSA is the student’s application. When the FAFSA says “you” or “your”, it’s referring to the student, so make sure to enter your (the student’s) information. If we are asking for your parent’s information, we will specify that in the question.
  • Entering the Wrong Name (Yes, I’m serious): You wouldn’t believe how many people have issues with their FAFSA because they entered an incorrect name on the application. It doesn’t matter if you’re Madonna, or Drake, or whatever Snoop Lion is calling himself these days. You must enter your full name as it appears on your Social Security card. No nicknames.
  • Entering the Wrong Social Security Number (SSN): When we process FAFSAs, we cross-check your Social Security number with the Social Security Administration. To avoid delays in processing your application, triple-check that you have entered the correct SSN. If you meet our basic eligibility criteria, but you or your parents don’t have an SSN, follow these instructions.
  • Amount of Your Income Tax: Here, we are asking for your assessed income tax liability, not the amount of income tax withheld, and not your adjusted gross income (AGI). I know this is complicated. To make it simple, use this to find out which tax line number you should refer to when answering this question. (Note: It depends on which IRS form you filed.)

9. Not Reporting Parent Information

Even if you fully support yourself, pay your own bills, and file your own taxes, you may still be considered a dependent student for federal student aid purposes, and therefore, you’ll need to provide parent information on your FAFSA. Dependency guidelines for the FAFSA are determined by Congress and are different from those of the IRS. Find out whether you need to provide parent information by answering these questions.

If you’re considered a dependent student and don’t provide parent information, your FAFSA may not be processed, you may not receive an EFC and/or you may only qualify for unsubsidized loans.

Bonus: Who is my parent when I fill out the FAFSA?

Who is my parent when I fill out my FAFSA (Infographic)


10. Listing only one college

Two-thirds of precollege FAFSA applicants list only one college on their applications. Unless you are only applying to one college or already know where you’re going to school, this is a mistake! Colleges can’t see the other schools you’ve added, so you should add ANY college you are considering to your FAFSA, even if you aren’t sure whether you’ll apply or be accepted. You can add up to 10 schools at a time. If you’re applying to more than 10 schools, follow these steps.

TIP: It doesn’t hurt your application to add more schools. In fact, you don’t even have to remove schools you later decide not to apply to. If you don’t end up applying or getting accepted to a school, the school can just disregard your FAFSA. But you can remove schools at any time to make room for new schools.


11. Not Signing the FAFSA

So many students answer every single question that is asked, but fail to actually sign the FAFSA with their FSA ID and submit it. This happens for many reasons —maybe you forgot your FSA ID, or your parent isn’t with you to sign with the parent FSA ID —so the FAFSA is left incomplete. Don’t let this happen to you.

  • If you don’t know your FSA ID, select “Forgot username” and/or “Forgot password.”
  • If you don’t have an FSA ID, create one. (Note: You may need to wait up to three days for your information to be verified before you can use your new FSA ID to sign the FAFSA, but it’s still faster than mailing a signature page.)

If you’re not able to sign with your FSA ID, you and/or your parent have the option to mail a signature page. If you would like confirmation that your FAFSA has been submitted, you can check your status immediately after you submit your FAFSA online.


Nicole Callahan is a Digital Engagement Strategist at Federal Student Aid.

Photo by Getty Images.

234 Comments

  1. Do You have to fill out the section for your child, if you, the parent is the actual one receiving the child support or do the child have to say that they are ones receiving it. It seems really tricky and confusing, I don’t want to mess up the application for the child. Also, what happens when C.S. ends at the age of 18?

    • Your child should fill out the section for the “student” but you can be there to help them. The child support question will come up on the financial section. There is a statute that requires child support received be reported as “untaxed income and benefits.” If your child does not receive child support in the future, you do not need to report it as untaxed income.

  2. My son does not turn 18 until May 2017 so he cannot register with Selective Service. It says if you are not registered for Selective Service, you are not eligible for financial aid. Does that mean I have to wait until he turns 18 to complete the FAFSA?

    • No, you can complete the FAFSA now! He should select “no” and then “register me.” They’ll register him when he is within 30 days of his 18th birthday.

  3. My son didn’t get approved for this (FAFSA), he said that our income is over the limit. We are family of 4 and made $54k last year (gross income) . Is it possible to re-apply again?

    • You should complete a FAFSA every year for college. Many factors go into determining the types and amount of aid you get, so we can’t say if you’ll get more or less aid this year: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/next-steps/how-calculated
      These factors also change every year, so even if your income has changed or stayed the same, there might be a situation at the school where they have less (or more) aid to disburse. The same can be said for state aid, maybe one year your state can offer more money than the next depending on their budget. Don’t forget to apply for as many scholarships as you can too.

  4. I have already filed my taxes for 2015, but for 2016 I am going to claim myself because I now live on my own and not at home. Do I still have to use my 2015 information or can I wait till I file for 2016?

  5. My husband lost his job in January 2016. In 2015 he made over $100,000. He is hoping the union will get his job back, but still no word on that. He has been getting paid from a union Insurance policy that is non taxable, but it runs out in December. So in 2017 when my son will actually start college my husband will not have any income. Is there some way that we can report the drastic change in our income?

    • The 2017-18 FAFSA will ask about your income and tax information from 2015, so even though you had a higher income in 2015 you still must report that. After filing, contact the school’s financial aid office to ask for a “professional judgment” review. Explain your situation and provide any documentation you feel is necessary. The school is usually able to help if there are significant changes (like your job status in 2016) that cannot be reported on the FAFSA. https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/about/announcements/fafsa-changes#choose-2016

  6. I have twins. My daughter has completed the FAFSA, what does my son do to complete his FAFSA to make it easier (not refilling in the parent income, etc.)

    • Each student needs their own FSA ID and FAFSA. However, one parent can sign both child’s FAFSA using their (parent) FSA ID. The option to transfer parent info a sibling’s FAFSA will appear on the confirmation page, and it will only work if the sibling has NOT started a new FAFSA yet. When you get to the final step, there’s an option of transferring information to a brand new FAFSA (your other child’s). Make sure everyone has an FSA ID before you do this! screenshot

  7. We had a larger-than-normal income in 2015, and I was hoping to use our 2016 income tax information to file the FAFSA for our daughter who will be starting school fall of 2017. It sounds like that’s not possible based on what’s posted here–or is there a way around it?

    • Sorry, no way around it. Older tax info is required from now on. The 2017-18 FAFSA will ask about your income and tax information from 2015, so even though you had a higher income in 2015 you still must report that. After filing, contact the school’s financial aid office to ask for a “professional judgment” review. Explain your situation and provide any documentation you feel is necessary. The school is usually able to help if there are significant changes that cannot be reported on the FAFSA. https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/about/announcements/fafsa-changes#choose-2016

  8. Our income in 2015 was very high middle class, but for 2016 we lost almost all our income and may not ever recover. If I have to report our old income it is entirely inaccurate of our financial status. How can the application now help us with such outdated information? I don’t understand why we aren’t using current information. What are we to do when filing?

    • The 2017-18 FAFSA will ask about your income and tax information from 2015, so even though you had a higher income in 2015 you still must report that. After filing, contact the school’s financial aid office to ask for a “professional judgment” review. Explain your situation and provide any documentation you feel is necessary. The school is usually able to help if there are significant changes (like your job status in 2016) that cannot be reported on the FAFSA. https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/about/announcements/fafsa-changes#choose-2016

  9. The bursar’s office at LSU told a friend of mine that FAFSA only needs to be filed the first year. Is this true?

  10. My 2015 taxes reflect income I received from my deceased father’s retirement account and the payments, which I have been receiving quarterly over the last 10 years came to an end in February of this year. How do I show the decrease in my income from my 2015 return?

    • If there are financial or family circumstances that cannot be reflected on your FAFSA, contact the school’s financial aid office to ask for a “professional judgment” review after you file your FAFSA.

  11. The IRS Retrieval tool does not work. It would not accept the address l input even though I am putting the exact address on the 2015 1040 even though I am looking at the tax form as I am filling out the FAFSA.

    • You are required to use 2015 tax information. If there are financial or family circumstances that cannot be reflected on your FAFSA, contact the school’s financial aid office to ask for a “professional judgment” review after you file your FAFSA.

  12. My wife died several years ago & through text in her will I created a bypass or residual trust using only life insurance proceeds (nothing else was deposited into the trust).

    In an earlier comment to a widow on Nov 10 you said that whole life insurance proceeds are not included in the FAFSA calculation. My wife’s life insurance consisted of two policies – one whole life and one term. Both were deposited into the trust which now generates about $30K in annual income reported on my 1040 (from a Schedule K-1).

    I know the trust annual income will be counted in the FAFSA but do I have to report the trust fund itself as an asset if it was funded solely using life insurance money?

  13. Greeting. I have one kid in undergrad and one as a grad student. The grad student i understand to be “independent” and so they dont need parents info on the form.
    Both are living with us when not in school and so are not living on their own.
    For my undergrad’s form, how many students in the family’s household are in school? does the independent grad student brother count?
    Same for the graduate. He is “independent” so I guess that his “household” is only one person even though he lives with us when not in school??

    • Household size has a different definition for both students and parents. It reads as:
      Who is included in the student’s household size?
      Your household size should include yourself, your spouse (if married) and children and other people (not your children or spouse) who will receive more than half of their support from you (and your spouse) between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018. You may also include any unborn children if they will be born during the school year.

      Who is included in the parents’ household size?
      Your parents’ household size should include yourself, your parent(s), and the number of children (other than yourself) who will receive more than half of their support from your parents between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018. Also include the number of people who are not your parents’ children but who live with your parents and receive more than half of their support from your parents, and will continue to receive more than half of their support from your parents between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018.

      For independent student, it should be 1 unless they are married or have dependents.

  14. Our household has lost half the income from 2015 due to a lost job. I believe there was a spot that asked if situations have changed but it didn’t ask how much. Did I miss something or are they just going off of that income? Tyia

    • You are required to use 2015 tax information. You will not have the option to input 2016 financial info on the 2017-18 FAFSA. More: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/about/announcements/fafsa-changes

      We understand that some families’ income may have changed significantly since the 2015 tax year. If this is the case for you, you must complete the FAFSA with the info it asks for (2015). Then, after filing your FAFSA, contact the financial aid office at your school to explain and document the change in income. The school has the ability to assess your situation and update your FAFSA accordingly.

    • Some families are concerned about being required to provide older (2015) tax information when completing a FAFSA because that information may not reflect their current financial situation. If your financial or family circumstances have changed, submit the FAFSA using 2015 information and then contact the college’s financial aid office to ask for a “professional judgment” review.

  15. We had income from my deceased parents’ trust in 2015, which hurt our financial aid. If we use 2015 tax info, does that mean we’ll have that against us again?

    • You are required to use 2015 tax information. Some families are concerned about being required to provide older (2015) tax information when completing a FAFSA because that information may not reflect their current financial situation. If your financial or family circumstances have changed, submit the FAFSA using 2015 information and then contact the college’s financial aid office to ask for a “professional judgment” review.

    • You should use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically import this info.

      Investments do not include the home in which you (and your spouse) live; cash, savings and checking accounts; the value of life insurance and retirement plans (401[k] plans, pension funds, annuities, non-education IRAs, Keogh plans, etc.).

      There is a separate question for IRAs: https://fafsa.ed.gov/fotw1718/help/totalUntaxedIRA.htm

  16. I am a senior and don’t have a social security number as my dad is in a TN visa. Can I get financial aid?

  17. In 2015 I was working full time, but I haven’t worked since May of 2016. Do I still have to report the income from 2015, which is way more than I made this year? I don’t want to hurt my kids chances of getting more scholarship or grants.

  18. Why won’t the FAFSA update with my 2016 tax info? My income was substantially less in 2016 than in 2015. I don’t feel this is accurate and may impact aid offered to my college children.

    • You are required to use 2015 tax information. You will not have the option to input 2016 financial info on the 2017-18 FAFSA. More: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/about/announcements/fafsa-changes

      We understand that some families’ income may have changed significantly since the 2015 tax year. If this is the case for you, you must complete the FAFSA with the info it asks for (2015). Then, after filing your FAFSA, contact the financial aid office at your school to explain and document the change in income. The school has the ability to assess your situation and update your FAFSA accordingly.

  19. My husband and I are in the process of getting divorced but we still live in the same house. We file separate income taxes and have done so for several years. I asked him for his return so I can add them to my sons fafsa but he refuses. He says he will not be helping with this expense since he finds college is a waste of money. He doesn’t support them financially as he feels that’s my responsibility not his. How do I explain this on a fafsa? Ultimately they will get his income information somehow and they will raise our EIC but he will not contribute and that will become an expense that will fall solely on me.

  20. My husband is finishing up a degree this year and is considering going back for another program next academic year. Should he complete the FAFSA now, even though he may not end up going to college next year should he decide to work instead of go back to school?

    • Yes. Complete the FAFSA now. It doesn’t hurt to submit it and see your award package. If you decide not to go to school, you just tell the college.

    • We understand that some families’ income may have changed significantly since the 2015 tax year. If this is the case for you, you must complete the FAFSA with the info it asks for (2015). Then, after filing your FAFSA, contact the financial aid office at your school to explain and document the change in income. The school has the ability to assess your situation and update your FAFSA accordingly.

  21. I have not had earned income for several years. Only ss and ssi so i have not filed taxes. How do i deal with the irs questions?

  22. I am married and have two sons ages 17 and 21. I entered my household size as 4 because even though my eldest son does have a job, he lives with me and I pay for his medical insurance, car insurance, his food and of course, housing. My youngest son has already applied and been admitted for 2017-2018 as a first year freshman. My eldest son is also completing his own FAFSA and tells me he wants to enroll in college himself for the first time in 2017-2018 but isn’t 100% sure. Should I go ahead and list 2 children to be enrolled in college on my FAFSA? And he should on his too, correct? What happens if he ends up not going at the last minute?

    • Household size has a different definition for both students and parents. It reads as:
      Who is included in the student’s household size?
      Your household size should include yourself, your spouse (if married) and children and other people (not your children or spouse) who will receive more than half of their support from you (and your spouse) between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018. You may also include any unborn children if they will be born during the school year.

      Who is included in the parents’ household size?
      Your parents’ household size should include yourself, your parent(s), and the number of children (other than yourself) who will receive more than half of their support from your parents between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018. Also include the number of people who are not your parents’ children but who live with your parents and receive more than half of their support from your parents, and will continue to receive more than half of their support from your parents between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018.

      Number of family members in college has an impact on your financial aid. Make sure you answer that question appropriately.

    • The 2017-18 FAFSA is for students going to college between July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018. Complete a FAFSA every year you’re in college.
      FAFSA Table

  23. I have finally gotten thru entering all of the parent’s financials and now we are on “student financials” but the only option is to select which tax form she filed. She was 15 last year, had no job so there was no reason for her to file an income tax return. There’s no option that says “No taxes submitted” or something like that. How do we get past this?

  24. I was widowed earlier this year. All of the 2015 income was from my late husband’s income. Two questions:
    1) I have seen that I should “subtract” his income. Is there a formal process for this, or do I simply enter ‘0″ for the relevant questions?
    2) I received a life insurance payment. Does that count as part of my savings now?

    • The FAFSA will ask about your current marital status, which is separate from the taxes part. It will say “What is your marital status?” https://fafsa.ed.gov/help/maritalStatusF4c.htm
      Select I am divorced or widowed if you are divorced or widowed.

      If you filed your 2015 taxes as married but you’re no longer married when you fill out the 2017-18 FAFSA, you’ll need to subtract your late husband’s income.

      The cash value or equity of a whole life insurance policy isn’t reported as an asset, but an insurance settlement does count as income on the FAFSA.

  25. My husband receives Social Security Disability (SSDI) but the FAFSA language about reporting this as untaxed income is ambiguous. Is this considered “disability” income which IS reported as untaxed income –OR– is this considered “Social Security” income which is NOT reported as untaxed income?

    • The FAFSA question will say: What was the total of your other untaxed income or benefits?

      Enter the total amount of any other untaxed income or benefits, such as workers compensation, Black Lung Benefits, untaxed portions of Railroad Retirement Benefits, disability benefits, etc. that you (and, if married, your spouse) received in 2015. Also include the untaxed portions of health savings accounts from IRS Form 1040 – line 25.

      Do not include extended foster care benefits, student aid, earned income credit, child tax credit, welfare payments, untaxed Social Security benefits, Supplemental Security Income, Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act educational benefits, on-base military housing or a military housing allowance, combat pay, benefits from flexible spending arrangements (e.g., cafeteria plans), foreign income exclusion or credit for federal tax on special fuels.

      In the FAFSA explanation above, “disability benefits” refers to long term disability benefits from employers.

      “Social Security disability benefits” consists of Social Security Disability (SSD, or SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

      There will be another question that specifically asks about Supplemental Security Income (SSI), this is where you report it. https://fafsa.ed.gov/fotw1718/help/ssiStudent.htm
      Screenshot: https://blog.ed.gov/files/2016/11/2017-18-Parent-Financial-Medicaid.png

  26. Husband receives pay from military (medically retired due to asthma) . Money is non taxable. Do we have to claim it on fasfa?

Comments are closed.