Tips on FAFSA: Parents Share What They’ve Learned


Tips on FAFSA: Parents Share What They’ve Learned

Published October 11, 2020


While it doesn’t ask as many “involved” questions as the CSS Profile, the FAFSA form, for some, can still be one of the more unpleasant things about the college application experience.

You and your child will have to work together to process all the important documentation in order to qualify for federal aid, and the detail-oriented specifications are bound to cause hiccups along the way.

The FAFSA process changes frequently, and this year is no different.

(The big changes will be coming in 24-25, so you can breathe a little sigh of relief until then.)

Common threads are carried over from year to year, however, and parents from the Paying For College 101 Facebook group who’ve already gone through the process shared with us the tips that parents going forward can still find useful.

The parents who have weighed in wish they’d known some of these insider tips when they were “newbies.”

Here are some of the things to keep in mind:

Understanding FAFSA: “Be Precise”

“FAFSA doesn’t ‘give’ you anything. That should be repeated a thousand times over for everyone who thinks they will ‘get money’ from FAFSA.” —Susan

“Type in the names exactly as they are spelled on your tax return.” —Claire

“Don’t forget our password.” —Ruth

“Get the FAFSA done even if you’re not ready to apply to schools yet.” —KayCee

When to File: Pay Attention to Deadlines

The FAFSA opens on October 1st and the FAFSA deadline for the 2023-24 school year (for many schools) is June 30, 2023.

While there is a general consensus that the sooner you fill out this form, the more money you are eligible to receive, not everyone is willing to buy into that.

“I’ve just always heard the earlier you fill it out, the more money that is in the “pot.” —Kristi.

“Meh…That’s a myth. Figure out your EFC. If you make more than $50-60k all you’re going to get from FAFSA is loans,” —Susan.

“Check the schools’ requirements. Some do have limited funds that they allocate as info comes in, but there’s no need to help crash the site on October 1.” —Doreen

“Just do it! Even if you don’t think you qualify, it can open doors for other funding!” —Randi

It is also true that some colleges award their aid on a first-come, first-serve basis, but of course, there is no hard and fast rule that a family has to apply as soon as October 1 rolls around.

In order to apply for federal aid, both you and your child will need to create FAFSA accounts.

Parents, across the board, suggest getting a head start on the application by gathering all the necessary financial documents.

“You will need a (FAFSA) parent account. It may take a few days to process it, so I suggest you both make accounts beforehand. You need 2021 tax forms, but current account balances. She is supposed to fill out her portion and you link your info to her application. When/if you have a second college student, you can link your account info to both of their applications. If you have any special tax situations (self-employed, retirement rollovers, etc.) I recommend NOT using the IRS data retrieval tool. It saves time if you have a simple financial situation, but it’s a real headache if things go wrong,” —Hillary

Your EFC (Expected Family Income) is determined from the information on the FAFSA application and families may want to know that number sooner rather than later. Thus, it is important to meet FAFSA deadlines and know the ones that are connected to the schools your student is interested in.

Once you miss a deadline, you are pretty much out of luck.

Deadlines to Look For:

  • Federal Deadline: The FAFSA form must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT) on June 30, 2024. Any corrections or updates must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CT on Sept. 14, 2024.
  • College Deadlines: Each college may have its own deadline. Check with the college(s) you’re interested in attending. You may also want to ask your college about its definition of an application deadline. Is it the date your FAFSA form is processed or the date the college receives your processed FAFSA data?
  • State Deadlines: Each state has its own deadline. The FAFSA website lists known state deadlines here.

Grants and Other Types of Financial Aid

Families should understand the different types of aid available and how each type works before submitting the FAFSA.

Parents suggested looking at what semesters are covered by the Pell Grant.

“For 2022-23 maximum Pell is $6495 so the amount you listed here is likely the amount of Pell that will be applied to the 2022-23 school year. You will need to know if the school year is fall/ spring/ summer or summer/fall/spring to see what semesters are being covered by each year’s award.” —Holly

In response to a question about having a child who drops below full-time status, one parent explained how it would affect the FAFSA and EFC.

“If they catch it, you will be verified. It happened to me. You will get one or two questions about the sibling. Your FASFA will be edited and EFC will probably change.”—Natasha

According to, there are different types of financial aid that can be given or awarded for college students.

  • Financial aid can be federal, or come from the state, private sources, or the attended university or college. The most common forms of aid include loans, which is borrowed money that comes with interest, and grants, which are not repaid unless under certain circumstances like withdrawing from the school
  • There are also work study opportunities that have different guidelines at different schools. There is also a Federal work-study program where students can receive aid by working part-time.
  • Additionally, scholarships can be received from private or nonprofit organizations, as well as the university or college you or your student attends. FAFSA estimations can be obtained once the FAFSA form process is completed.

Even though some families may qualify for work study, it is not a binding contract.

“You are not committing (to work-study) if you say, “Yes” (on the FAFSA forms). They just want to know in case your child qualifies for a work study.” —Elizabeth

“Check yes for federal work study money. Almost all campus jobs are FWS.” —Kelley

Understanding FAFSA Eligibility

Types of Federal student aid like the Federal Pell Grant require evidence of need.

The FAFSA student aid report is a resource either in paper or online that helps students and families understand basic information about their eligibility.

More information about the FAFSA student aid report (SAR) can be found here.

Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool

There are lots of opinions about whether or not to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool tool when filling.

“Don’t pull the information from the IRS if you had any stock sale/rollovers. Do it manually and save yourself a lot of grief.” —Barbara

“We moved and changed jobs and FAFSA counted $300k in retirement money as untaxed income!!! It was horrendous trying to fix it!!” —Bonnie”

“Check how the IRS writes your address on your tax return. It has to match what you enter for the tool. It took me 2 weeks of frustration to figure that out.” —Mary

“DO NOT use the IRS Data Retrieval tool if anything about your finances was weird during the year of your tax returns.” —Kimberly

Bottom Line

When it comes to filling out the FAFSA, it’s obvious from all these opinions that, everyone has a different one.

But, the one common thread that ran through all the comments was, be prepared, have all your appropriate paperwork at the ready, and we especially liked this last comment…

“Have a cocktail while doing it. Perhaps some meditation before and after. Put yourself in timeout when you start to lose your mind.” —Heather

Still Have Questions About the Process?

It’s always helpful to hear what others who have already been through the process have to say. And it’s equally helpful to get some advice from an expert.

Here’s a step-by-step walkthrough. And a list of mistakes to avoid.

If you find you’re still stumped, we even offer a FAFSA Review that can provide more personalized guidance.







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