Let the race for financial aid begin.
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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, became available Monday. It's widely considered the most important document in securing money for higher education. Current and prospective students must fill it out annually to get loans, grants and other forms of federal student aid.
There are a few minor updates and details to know about this year:
HOW DO I FILL IT OUT?
You can fill out the FAFSA online at fafsa.ed.gov. For the first time this year, you can also complete it on your phone. The U.S. Department of Education has created a mobile-friendly version on its website or it can be filled out using its new myStudentAid app. If you prefer a paper copy, you can also download a PDF.
Student aid expert Mark Kantrowitz of the website savingforcollege.com said the app can be a little sluggish at times but the new interface is definitely an improvement.
No matter how you complete it, students and their parents will need some basic information on hand, including social security numbers, recent tax returns, bank statements and other details to provide a picture of your financial situation. Both parents and students will have to create a username and password — a Federal Student Aid ID — to complete the process.
"Apply! You have to apply! If you don't file the FAFSA form you won't get any aid," said Susie Bauer of Baird's private wealth management group. "Even if you think you may not qualify, you should still submit the forms."
Tina Hay, founder of Napkin Finance — a website that aims to simplify complex financial information — estimates it will take one to five hours to complete.
WHEN DO I NEED TO COMPLETE IT?
The FAFSA is available from October 1 through June 30.
It's important to file as soon as possible. Some aid is available on a first-come, first serve basis until the funds are depleted, said Rick Castellano, spokesman for Sallie Mae. Additionally, some states and colleges may have earlier deadlines for applying for state or school-specific aid. You can find your state deadline on the FAFSA website and check with your school about its deadlines.
Double-check that your entries are correct before you hit submit. An error could slow the process. For example, if the name on your FAFSA doesn't match the name on your social security card, it could be rejected.
Once you've completed the form, follow-up with the school to make sure they received it and ask if they need any more information. Students need to complete the FAFSA every year as it's the only way to remain eligible for federal student aid, and the amount of aid can vary year-to-year.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
After you've completed the FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education will process your application within a few days, or around a week if you submitted on paper. Once it has been processed, you'll get a copy of your student aid report, or SAR, which summarizes the information you provided. Review it and make sure all information is accurate. If there are any errors or omissions, complete or correct it as soon as possible.
The SAR will include your expected family contribution, a figure that determines your eligibility for aid. The SAR is sent to the schools you listed and each school will review and determine what aid, if any, it can provide. You must list at least one college on the FAFSA to submit it but you can add others later. Castellano cautions that to be considered for state grant aid, some states require you to list state schools first.
WHAT ELSE SHOULD I KNOW?
Putting a freeze on your credit, which recently became free under changes to federal law, can affect applications for student loans. The Federal Stafford loan does not look at your credit history, but the Federal PLUS Loan and private student loans do. You need to temporarily unfreeze your credit before applying for these loans, said Kantrowitz of savingforcollege.com.
If you feel that your family's financial circumstances are unusual, make an appointment with the financial aid administrator at your school. Sometimes the school will be able to adjust your financial aid package using a process known as professional judgment.
Finally, remember that the FAFSA is free — so don't pay to apply.