If you're a United States citizen or eligible noncitizen and you're planning to go to a college, university or trade school, you've probably heard of or read about the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) [source: U.S. Department of Education]. It's the only way to get all of the financial assistance you qualify for from your prospective schools, state and the U.S. government. Not only that, a completed FAFSA is required by your school's financial aid office. Although the FAFSA application process may seem arduous, it can make the difference between attending the school you have your heart set on or delaying your education altogether until you've gathered sufficient funds to pay for it outright.
Before we move forward, there are a few other things you should know. Every year, half of all U.S. college students unknowingly pass up on financial aid simply because they don't apply for it [source: Kristof]. Some of them think their household income is too high to qualify for financial help. Others may have savings or other assets and assume these funds disqualify them from scholarships, grants or loans. There are also students who think they won't be able to afford pricier private colleges and universities and avoid applying to them-- but these institutions actually may provide more financial aid than some junior colleges and state schools. Another misconception among students is that they need to have filed the prior year's Federal Income Tax return form, or 1040, in order to apply for student aid.
While these are several misconceptions about student aid, one thing's for sure: In addition to completing the FAFSA as early as possible, it's crucial that you follow up on it diligently and expediently. Not doing so can crush your plans for getting the education you're depending on.
In this article, you'll learn how to monitor the progress of your FAFSA. You'll discover the benefits of timely follow-up, as well. Move on to the next section to learn about the application process and exactly what's involved in FAFSA follow-up.
FAFSA Follow-up Steps
As you may know, there are several ways to submit your FAFSA. The online application is the most efficient because it eliminates errors and reduces manual processing time. Be very careful that you apply only at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/ -- this is the authentic federal student aid application Web site. Don't type "FAFSA" into a search engine like Google or Yahoo because the links you'll get in the first several pages will be filled with references to sites that aren't endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education. Some may even be unscrupulous outfits set out to charge you money or, worse, steal your identity [source: Kristof].
About three days after you complete your FAFSA online, you'll receive a personal identification number (PIN) with which you can check the status of your financial aid application. It takes about a week from the day you file your application electronically to see your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), correct any mistakes or enter new information. If you mail in a hard copy of the application, it will take two or three weeks for processing before you can log into the FAFSA Web site to get your EFC and make any corrections. No matter whether you applied online or by snail mail, you'll have to log into your account online after your application has been processed to make any changes.
It's very important to check the status of your FAFSA as soon as possible. The Office of Federal Student Aid, your state's education department or the schools to which you've applied may have questions, and you'll be notified only when you log in to your account on the FAFSA Web site.
Once you provide all of the necessary information (including your signature), answer any additional questions and provide further documentation, you'll receive access to view and print your Student Aid Report (SAR). Your SAR will also list your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). To find out how much total assistance you qualify for, you'll need to contact the financial aid office at each school where you applied for financial aid.
Pitfalls of Not Following Up on Your FAFSA
Whether you're a high school senior or a current college student, you've probably got more than enough to juggle with daily schoolwork, various exams, extracurricular activities and after-school jobs. Add to that boatload of responsibilities various forms and applications to further your education, and life can become overwhelming.
Once you've completed the application, it's easy to think you're finished with the whole thing or be tempted to put it off until later. But the FAFSA is just one part of the financial aid process, and you jeopardize your chances of even attending college in the upcoming school year if you fail to follow up on your FAFSA. You may not get enough money to cover your tuition and other costs like room and board, and that can shut you out of going to school for the upcoming academic year. Or, you may end up racking up student loan debt when you could have received scholarships, grants or work-study funds had you been more ardent in seeing your FAFSA through.
One way to stay on top of FAFSA follow-up is to put reminders on your calendar and wireless devices. Set up reminders to alert you to log in to your fafsa.gov account and check the status of your application. You can even print out a time line or list of important dates and post it where you'll see it every day. If you struggle with remembering tasks or have poor organizational skills, enlist a family member or friend to remind you to periodically check your FAFSA online.
One more thing: The sooner you complete your initial FAFSA application, then follow up every few days until you receive your final Student Aid Report (SAR), the better your chances of receiving the most money for school. Although the official deadline for applying is June 30, grants and scholarships -- the money you don't have to repay -- get doled out on a first-come, first-served basis at the start of each calendar year (Jan. 1). These funds typically run out as soon as February or March in offers to students for the following school year.
For more information on FAFSA follow-up, deadlines and related topics, explore the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Article
- Kristof, Kathy M. "Shortcuts and other smart for filling out federal student aid form." Los Angeles Times. Jan. 17, 2010. (Jan 26, 2010). http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jan/17/business/la-fi-perfin17-2010jan17
- MississippiMentor. "The FAFSA and Other Financial Aid Applications." 2010. (Jan. 26, 2010). http://mississippimentor.org/finaid/overview/fafsa.asp
- Toothman, Jessika. "How To Check Your Financial Aid Status." Jan. 19, 2010. (Jan. 26, 2010).https://money.howstuffworks.com/personal-finance/college-planning/financial-aid/check-financial-aid-status.htm#
- U.S. Dept. of Education. "Federal Student Aid Forms." Jan. 11, 2010. (Jan. 26, 2010). http://studentaid.ed.gov/PORTALSWebApp/students/english/forms.jsp
- U.S. Dept. of Education. Student Aid Eligibility." 2010. (Jan. 26, 2010). http://studentaid.ed.gov/PORTALSWebApp/students/english/aideligibility.jsp
- Weston, Liz Pulliam. "How to find free money for college." MSN Money Central. May 5, 2008. (Jan. 26, 2010). http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/CollegeAndFamily/CutCollegeCosts/HowToFindFreeMoneyForCollege.aspx