Q. How soon do I need to file the FAFSA, and should I still apply if I think my family makes too much money?
A. The sooner you fill out the FAFSA, the better. The application is free, and it's not just a way to determine how much federal student aid you'll receive. State governments, and some colleges and universities use information from the FAFSA to determine what state and institutional aid you qualify for. But state agencies and individual schools also have different deadlines to qualify for aid -- so keep track of all of the deadlines, and get a head start. Even if your household income is too high for you to qualify for federal grants or work-study funds, the FAFSA is also used to determine federal student loan eligibility. There's no harm in applying, and on average, it only takes 23 minutes to fill out the FAFSA.
Q. What are some common mistakes students and families make when filling out the FAFSA?
A. The first mistake you can make is not filling out the FAFSA in the first place! Don't assume that you can't afford college - the FAFSA opens the door to many different opportunities for financial aid, and the sooner you apply, the better, as state grant agencies and scholarship organizations— which often have a limited pot of funds to give out on a first come, first served basis— usually require you to have filed a FAFSA in order to receive aid. Keep in mind that you don't need to know where you'll be attending school in order to file the FAFSA, and you don't need to have your taxes completed yet for the previous year because starting with the 2017-18 FAFSA, you will use tax information from two years prior. Applying online makes filling out the FAFSA easier because the online form uses skip logic to only ask relevant questions. You will also have the option to retrieve your IRS data to automatically populate the FAFSA, which simplifies the application process, helps reduce errors and lowers your chances of being selected to verify the information on your FAFSA. When filling out the FAFSA, make sure to pay attention to federal, state, and institutional deadlines, take your time to avoid information errors, and not leave too many spaces blank. Be sure to use your legal name, have official documents you need ready, and see what other common mistakes you can avoid.
Q. Besides federal grants and loans, where can I go to find college financial aid?
A. In addition to federal grants, loans, and other types of aid (such as Pell Grants, Direct Loans, and the Federal Work-Study Program), students can receive financial aid from state agencies, individual schools, and a variety of community organizations. Usually, the FAFSA is the only form you need to apply for state financial aid, but you should check with your state agency to see if more information is required. Most schools have their own financial aid programs, and use your FAFSA results for those too. There are other independent sources -- through community organizations, churches, and private organizations -- that award financial aid to students. Remember that you do not have to pay anyone to help you find aid, and if you have questions, you can reach out to your school’s, or a prospective school’s, financial aid office.
Q. Besides tuition and fees, room and board, what else should I include in a budget for the school year, and how can I stay on track?
A. It's important to make sure you have enough money and financial aid to cover tuition and fees, and living expenses, but there are other expenses that make up the entire cost of attending college. Be sure to also budget for textbooks and supplies, transportation, travel to and from home during breaks, and emergencies. In some cases, you might also be required to purchase certain supplies specific to your major that might not be listed in the overall estimate for the cost of attendance.
Q. How can I set myself up for success when repaying my student loans?
A. There are several different repayment plans for student loan borrowers. The best way to set yourself up for success is to pick the repayment plan that's best for you to avoid falling into default. Borrowers start out on a standard 10-year repayment plan after a six-month grace period passes, but if that's too much to handle, there are other repayment plans based on your income that can adjust your monthly payments. If you aren't sure which repayment plan best fits your needs, you can learn more and see what your monthly payments would look like with different plans on StudentLoans.gov. It's also important to communicate with your student loan servicer and let them know if you need help in repayment. You can find out who your servicer is through the National Student Loan Data System for Students by clicking on "Financial Aid Review."