Filling out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the single most important thing you can do to pay for college. However, if you don’t list schools that will give you a good financial aid package, the FAFSA form won’t help you. (See our story about understanding financial aid packages for more information.)
Here’s what you need to know about filling out the schools section of the FAFSA form.
- How schools use FAFSA. Most people think of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as the fast track to student loans, but the income and asset information you report are used by schools to determine your complete financial aid package. So if you don’t fill out the FAFSA, you won’t know about need-based scholarships and grants you could have received.
- How to use net price calculators. Net price calculators are available on university websites. You punch in information such as family income, where you live and grade point average. You then get a number that estimates what financial aid you might receive if you attend that school. The numbers are generally based on the aid that was awarded in the previous year to students with similar economic and academic characteristics to yours.
- The number of schools you can choose. You can list 10 school codes on the FAFSA. You can find the school codes via a link from the electronic FAFSA itself or from this link. It’s best to list state schools first. This is because sometimes state schools will award more aid to those who list state schools first. Listing order doesn’t make a difference for private schools. You don’t necessarily have to accept offers to any of these schools, but do make sure you are applying to some of them. After all, it doesn’t make a difference if these schools have your financial information but don’t also have an application from you.
- Make phone calls. Call school financial aid offices that you choose based on the net price calculators. Why? There may be more or less financial aid offered in different years for a variety of reasons. They can predict the amount of financial aid based on whether donor dollars have increased or decreased. They can’t predict whether this year’s class of applicants will be less competitive or more competitive for financial aid than last year. But there is a big perk to calling: You can ask about additional scholarships you can apply for that you didn’t know about.
- You can change schools later. Don’t worry about listing every school you may possibly attend. You can change schools later, but you want to list the schools you are most likely to attend to make sure you don’t lose out on financial aid that is first come, first served.
- Deadlines matter. Some financial aid is first come, first served. For instance, you could lose out on a state grant because you filed later in the year. Fill out the FAFSA as close to Oct. 1 as possible. It may make hundreds or even thousands of dollars of difference in your financial aid offer.
- Some schools will use a different system. Some schools use a different system to gather information on your finances than FAFSA. It’s called the CSS Profile. It costs a fee and is used by some colleges, mainly private, and scholarship programs. Before you narrow down the number of schools you are applying for, make sure you see if the schools you’re considering use the FAFSA form or CSS Profile.
- Talk to your high school counselor. Your high school counselor can help you with career exploration resources, private scholarship information, and school choice. Have a meeting with your high school counselor if possible before picking schools and get a game plan for career exploration, so you choose a school based on what you want to do with your life. They can also help you with which school may offer you the most financial aid. However, don’t wait for this appointment to pick schools if the appointment date is after Oct. 1.
- It’s not a substitute for filling out other scholarship applications, and this can add to your offer. You still should fill out additional applications for private scholarships and learn as much as you can about scholarships from the university. While the FAFSA may help with applying to some university scholarships, it isn’t all that’s needed to apply for others. For instance, you may need to write an essay or submit letters of recommendation.
- Pay attention to the links afterward. After you fill out the FAFSA form, a new page will open up that has links for additional information on state and other grants. Don’t X out of this page right away. You won’t learn about this additional college funding if you do.
If you liked this article, you may also be interested in:
- College financial aid: A timeline for high-school students and families
- 10 ways to save on college textbooks
- How to leave college with less student loan debt
- 10 things college students should learn about money
- Money tips for new college graduates
- College financial aid packages: What parents need to know