FAFSA Tips and Mistakes

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA, is one of the most important yet, misunderstood forms you'll ever file when it comes to paying for college. For a step-by-step guide, you can visit www.FAFSAOnline.com.

Here are the top 5 tips to keep in mind when completing this important form:

#5: Do your IRS 1040 first. Even if you don't plan on filing your IRS 1040 on paper, I strongly recommend you complete a 1040 BEFORE you start your FAFSA. Approximately 80% of the FAFSA is based on IRS tax data, and by completing the 1040 first, you'll save yourself a LOT of time. Even if you don't have your W-2 and 1099 forms from your employers, you can still estimate using your last pay stub(s) from 2006.

#4: Mind the clock. There is a limited pool of financial aid in the form of college scholarships and grants made available each year. The sooner you file your FAFSA after January 1, 2007, the more likely you are to receive money from this pool (which includes the Pell Grant, AC Grant, SMART Grant, FSEO Grant, and work study) if you're eligible. The money in the pool is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so if you wait too long to file your FAFSA, you may not receive anything from the pool, even if you're eligible.

#3: It's better to be right than fast. Even though speed counts with the FAFSA, correctness counts even more. Be sure you're filing the FAFSA correctly, paying careful attention to the instructions and the included worksheets. For example, regarding dependency, a lot of people have situations at home which aren't necessarily reflected on the FAFSA form. Be absolutely sure that you fill out the questions on the FAFSA according to the guidelines provided with the form about who is or is not a dependent student. And be sure to avoid typos: Putting down 123 Sesame Drive for a home address when you really live at 123 Sesame Street will instantly kill your FAFSA and any chance you have for federal student loans.

#2: Zero is the biggest thing. In any field on the FAFSA that asks for a monetary amount, never, EVER leave it blank. If you're unsure if it applies to you, fill it in with a ZERO. Leaving a field blank does not automatically make it zero, which can affect how much aid you receive.

#1: File anyway. The number one most important tip for the FAFSA is to file one regardless of whether you think you'll qualify for federal financial aid or not. Filing a FAFSA is completely free of charge, and if you file online, you won't even pay for postage. Many schools and states use the results from the FAFSA for institutional and state-based financial aid, as well as some private scholarships and grants, so always complete the FAFSA every year, no matter your financial situation.

Bonus Tip: Spell "FAFSA" correctly - It's not FASFA or FASA.

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