7 FAFSA tips to get the most financial aid

By Unigo

If you want help paying for college, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) should be your first step. Each year, the federal government awards more than $150 billion in student loans, grants, and work-study awards to eligible students. Here are seven tips to give you the best chance of getting the most aid.

1. Don’t assume you aren’t eligible

Any student thinking of applying for college, or in college, should submit the FAFSA. It’s free, and most students qualify for federal student loans. Many state governments and colleges also use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for non-federal aid, such as grants and scholarships (programs not all students are eligible for).

2. Apply for FAFSA as early as possible

The FAFSA opens on Jan. 1 for the 2016-17 academic year, and on Oct. 1 for the 2017-18 academic year and beyond. Even though you have several months to submit the FAFSA, some aid is awarded on a first-come-first-served basis, so don’t wait! Apply as early as possible each year to increase your chances of getting the most financial aid.

3. Apply every year

In order to qualify for financial aid, you must submit the FAFSA every year, even if your financial situation doesn’t change.

4. Prepare all relevant information

Before filling out the FAFSA, prepare all of the documents and information you’ll need to complete the form. You’ll need information for yourself, and your parents if you’re a dependent student.

  • FSA ID (Federal Student Aid ID — if you haven’t created one, you will need to do this before completing the FAFSA)
  • Driver’s license number
  • Most recent federal income tax information or tax return
  • W-2 forms from jobs and all other records of money earned
  • Bank statements and account balances, records of investments, and untaxed income (if applicable)

5. Transfer student’s assets

The federal formula for determining aid assumes that 20 percent of a student’s assets can be used to pay for college tuition, but parents are only expected to contribute 5.64 percent of their assets for college. This means that moving student assets to parent accounts before submitting the FAFSA could lower your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and may help you qualify for more federal student aid. Also, the fewer assets your family has, the more financial aid you may be eligible for. So, paying off credit card bills and other debts before filing your FAFSA may help reduce reportable assets and may decrease your EFC.

6. Check for mistakes before submitting

After filling out all FAFSA questions, go back and make sure there are no mistakes. Mistakes on your application can cause processing delays and prevent you from getting the most financial aid possible.

7. Appeal your award

If you’re not satisfied with your financial aid award and you or your family’s financial situation changed after submitting the FAFSA (such as family illness, divorce, or job loss), you can appeal your award. Call the financial aid office, explain your case, and then ask to whose attention a written appeal could be addressed. Then, write an appeal letter that explains your situation and need, and provide documents to support your statement. When physically possible, appealing in person is an option, and is sometimes more persuasive.

Next: Are you filling out the FAFSA correctly?