sign in

Students Ask, College Counselors Answer

Unigo Expert Network Column

See All Columns

This week's question from Heather Pierre, Lancaster, PA asks:

What are the most common mistakes students make on the financial aid application?

Ask and tell: Honest conversations with parents and guardians

Rebecca Joseph | Executive Director & Founder
Applying for financial aid is scary. So many people are scared to share their finances. You need to convince the adults in your life that the process is safe and confidential. This is the one time in your life where the less your family has the better. Also you need to get the application in early--so your family needs to do this year's taxes early. Please start conversations early and let us know if you need help explaining the process to the adults in your life.

Avoid these four mistakes when applying for financial aid

George Mills | Vice President for Enrollment
The three most common mistakes made when applying for financial aid are: counting one’s primary residence in the asset section of the FAFSA, including parent income in the student’s income section, and not asking that the results of the FAFSA be sent to colleges to which the student has applied. And, in cases where parents are separated or divorced a common error is to submit the financial information of the parent who claimed the student for income tax purposes rather than the financial information of the parent with whom the student resided most of the last 12 months.

Avoid these to add up the best financial aid award

Roland Allen | Director of College Counseling
Students and their families make three common financial aid mistakes: 1) Not applying. Some families rule out the possibility of receiving financial aid and don’t apply. In some cases, colleges require a financial aid application before considering students for merit scholarships, which are not based on financial need. Students who don’t submit the FAFSA may miss out on an award that they might be otherwise eligible for. 2) Most colleges post specific financial aid application process instructions on their websites. Students, however, sometimes don’t read the instructions. This is a mistake because the financial aid deadline may be ahead of the application deadline – particularly for students who apply early decision. Meeting deadlines is critical when applying for aid. 3) Corollary to #2: some colleges require additional financial aid application forms in addition to the FAFSA. These could include the College Board Profile, or an institution-specific financial aid application. Information on these is available, usually, on the college’s financial aid website.

Complete The Process Accurately And On Time

Megan Dorsey | SAT Prep & College Advisor
Every year students fail to receive aid due to application errors. A common error is failing to apply. Some families knowingly don’t apply under the mistaken belief that they make too much to receive aid. Others fail to complete the application. Some universities require school-specific forms or the CSS profile, while others don’t. Some students complete the application but submit incomplete or incorrect information, thus delaying the process. The final mistake is waiting too long to apply. Financial aid can be like going through a buffet – the people in the front of the line get their choice of the best offerings while those at the end may be left with table scraps. To ensure you receive the best possible offer, apply on time and make sure your application is complete and accurate.

Don’t Wait – Estimate

Betsy Morgan | Founder
By far, the most common misconception about filing for financial aid is that one needs to file their taxes before they apply. Instead, families should gather up their financial data (pay stubs, banking receipts, etc.) and estimate. On both the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE, there is an option to indicate that while you intend to file taxes, you have not yet done so. This lets the colleges know that you are estimating. Try to get as close as you can to the real numbers, however, or your estimated award will not be accurate.

FAFSA – Follow the Directions

Stacey Kostell | Director of Undergraduate Admissions
The most common mistakes when filling out the FAFSA are easily avoided. These include: 1.) Mistyping the student’s legal name, social security number, and birthdate. 2.) Forgetting to enter the PIN for the student and parent before submitting, as this serves as the electronic signature for the FAFSA. 3.) Not answering all questions correctly and completely. 4.) Failing to update the family's financial information immediately upon completing your tax return if an estimate was given prior to doing taxes. If you have any questions, be sure to ask a representative in your school's financial aid office.

It always pays to fill out a financial aid form

Todd Johnson | Founder
The worst mistake most people make is not completing a financial aid application. Many people are so convinced that they won’t qualify for financial aid that they don’t fill out the required forms. But many colleges give out more aid than people realize. Even if you don’t qualify for need based aid, some colleges use the financial aid forms as a requirement to get merit based aid. You also need to have completed a FAFSA to qualify for federal loans, which anyone can get regardless of your income or assets.

Keep track of your FAFSA pin, you’ll need it later!

As simple as it may sound, students and parents should write down their FAFSA PIN and store it with the rest of their passwords where they won’t forget it. Lots of students waste time trying to find or remember their PIN and ultimately have to reset it every year – and many parents have to do the same! This simple step can actually save a lot of time and help the application process go smoothly in future years.

Make sure you have provided all necessary the information!

Peter Brass | Director of Student Services & University Advisor
The most common mistakes in my experience are those associated with rushing through the application without due consideration for all the various demands on the family's financial resources in any given year. A complete and honest portrait of the family's financial situation and commitments allows the financial awards officer to assess properly the family's ability to meet tuition and other expense needs. Too often the applicant overlooks some very real expenses and excludes them from the application with the result that the award offer does not meet the student's need. Take the necessary time to review all demands on family resources so your college of choice has an accurate picture of your need. When an offer arrives, review it. If you have omitted to mention some significant items, or if financial circumstances have changed since your original application, then provide that information to the college immediately and request reconsideration. You might be very pleasantly surprised by the response.

Mistakes On Financial Aid Forms Can Cost You Money

Susie Watts | College Consultant
Financial aid is available on a first-come, first serve basis. Making mistakes will delay the FAFSA form and could cause you to lose out. Some common mistakes to avoid: 1.) When it refers to "you" it is referring to the student. 2.) Don't leave an income question blank, put in a zero 3.) Most students under the age of 24 are still dependent. 4.) Writing wrong social security and driver's license numbers. 5.) Not signing and dating the form. 6.) Listing Adjusted Gross Income as equal to total income. 7.) Not listing colleges.

On the FAFSA, follow the advice below to avoid the most common mistakes

Carol Stack | Principal
1. Never ever, ever leave the answer to a question blank. Never. “Yes” or “No” or “0” – yes zero – is the correct answer. No blanks. Ever. 2. Forgetting that the “you” on the FAFSA refers to the student – even if it is the parent completing the form. You = student. 3. Transposing numbers from your Social Security card or Driver’s License. Check. Double check. Triple check. 4. Incorrectly counting the number of members of the household. That number includes the student aid applicant! 5. Dependent students – both you and a parent have to sign. Both of you. 6. For the best information about completing the FAFSA go straight to the horses’ mouth – Student Aid on the Web.

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!

Patricia Young | Independent Counselor
This time of the year sometimes feels like a race in that you must gather a great deal of information to be prepared for the early deadlines required on financial-aid forms. If you miss a federal, state, or college financial-aid deadline, you have lost the race. Prepare now to organize paperwork required! Go online to find out what documents you need to fill out a FAFSA. Also, remember to check out, a terrific go-to website dealing with all sorts of handy information. You can find out about state and federal deadlines and various other financial aid forms used by private colleges, review financial aid terms, and view videos on how to navigate the financial-aid system.

What About For Students of Divorced Parents?

Lynda McGee | College Counselor
One of the biggest challenges of the FAFSA is faced by a student whose parents are divorced or separated. The FAFSA asks for the information of the custodial parent only, but what if that parent is not the one who claims the student on their taxes? What if both parents share custody? A student should use the information of the parent that they live with the most, regardless of who claims the student on their taxes. If the college is also requesting that the student complete the CSS Profile, they will be required to give financial information for the non-custodial parent. Just remember in the end that it is best to be honest, so there will be no surprises later in the financial aid award.



See All College Counselors

Get Expert Info in your Inbox!

Ask Your Own Question!