The Cutting Edge: Filling Out Your FAFSA

If you’re entering college for the first time next fall, or you’re a returning student and you haven’t filed your Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which determines a student’s eligibility for federal and university need-based financial aid, it’s time to get started.

The U.S. Department of Education will provide more than $83 billion in aid this year, accounting for nearly 60% of all student financial assistance. Sure this seems like a substantial amount of money, but given the more than 14 million students who apply for aid annually, it only breaks down to about $6,000 per applicant.

Though the Department of Education’s deadline is June 30, many schools set their deadline months earlier. Before you start filling out that tedious document, take a look at these tips to help you navigate the process smoothly:

Sooner is better than later: Unfortunately, government and university-provided assistance isn’t guaranteed. Aid is limited. Waiting until the last minute could lessen your chances of receiving a Pell grant, Perkins loan, Academic Competitiveness Grant, SMART Grant, and other federal aid.

Some mistakes students make are “wait[ing] until they’ve heard about their admissions decision or waiting until their parents have completed their tax returns,” says Michael Ellison, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst College. “This can affect institutional aid a student receives,” he adds, especially at public schools where resources are more limited. Forms are made available Jan. 1 every year. Students can fill out and submit their FAFSA quickly at

Also, if you are using the electronic form, make sure you know your PIN, which acts as your access code to your account. You apply for the number on the FAFSA Website.  Requesting the number can set you back a day or two.

Don’t wait for your parents to file their taxes: Students filing as dependents will need to provide their parents’ financial information. But if they have yet to file their taxes, use the information on the last paystub from 2008. “It’s better to estimate tax information from either the previous year’s tax return or the last paystub you received at the end of the year, as opposed to missing the deadline,” Ellison says.

You will need to amend the information on your FAFSA if there are discrepancies once their taxes are filed. This can be done once you receive your student aid report, usually three to 10 days after filing electronically. The report details the information that the Department of Education will use to determine need-based aid eligibility. Accuracy is important: The FAFSA document is one piece of paper that requires time and patience. While you should file early, you don’t want to be hasty. Wrong or inaccurate information can affect the amount of aid you receive. Need-based aid is determined by considering the expected family contribution (EFC) and the total cost of attendance.