The 10 Most Common Financial Aid Mistakes — And How To Avoid Them

For many students, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is crucial to making college affordable. While the application process can be greatly rewarding, that doesn't mean it's easy. FAFSA is riddled with confusing acronyms and financial lingo. And getting any money out of it is contingent on meeting deadlines and reporting dollar amounts precisely. Errors can greatly reduce or eliminate your financial aid award. Read on for our roundup of the most common FAFSA flubs — and our tips for avoiding them.

1. Missing Deadlines

The price of missing the FAFSA application deadline can be steep. So don't fall victim to this time management failure. Stay on top of deadlines by creating a due date calendar. Vow to review it daily. For each deadline item, create a list of tasks you'll need to complete to meet the due date. Estimate how much time each of these tasks will take you to finish. Add this information to your deadline calendar and hold yourself accountable.

2. Procrastinating

This year the FAFSA form will be made available on October 1. That's a full three months earlier than usual. Despite the early bird form availability, it will serve you best to fill out the FAFSA and submit it as soon as possible. Many folks wait until after they file their taxes to fill out and submit the FAFSA, and in some cases that can be too late. At least nine states award financial aid on a first come, first served basis — until the money runs out. Even if you beat the official deadline, waiting to file could potentially cost you everything.

3. Messing Up Numbers

While it's important to fill out the FAFSA in a timely manner, it's equally important that you fill it out correctly. Double-check to make sure the numbers you enter onto the FAFSA form are correct and in the right field. One faulty keyboard stroke could cost you thousands of dollars.

3. Leaving a Field Blank

If the answer is zero, write zero. Leaving a field blank can prompt the processor of your application to assume that you failed to answer the question. It can also lead to grave miscalculations and processing delays. So before you submit your application, double-check that all fields are filled in.

4. Not Including Stepparents

The FAFSA can be filed by just one parent. But if this parent is remarried, the financial information for that spouse — the student's stepparent — must also be reported. Depending on that stepparent's income and assets, a student's eligibility for need-based financial aid can fluctuate greatly.

5. Not Including Stepchildren on an Application

To soften the blow of a well-off stepparent, stepchildren may be included on the FAFSA application, as well. By including stepchildren, you'll make adjustments to the household size and expected family contribution portions of the form, thereby creating opportunity for greater need-based aid.

6. Filing the Wrong Form

At any given time, there are two versions of the FAFSA that could be filed: The FAFSA for the current academic year, and the FAFSA for the upcoming academic year. The majority of applicants — those seeking to attend school in the upcoming school year — will want to file the latter. Be sure that you've got the right form for your desired college enrollment date.

7. Not Using the Right Website

The FAFSA is free to fill out and submit on But beware: There are imposter sites out there. If you are asked for your credit card information, you're not on the official government site.

8. Including Retirement Info

Retirement info, such as your 401K or IRA assets, should never be included on the FAFSA. Only non-retirement financial data is required. Mistakenly including retirement funds on the form could reduce your chances of winning need-based aid, so be sure to avoid this mistake.

9. Entering the Wrong SSN

Most of us are rarely called upon to state our Social Security numbers, which could be why so many folks misstate these numbers on the FAFSA. Double-check SSN numbers before submitting the form, and make sure you have the correct number matched to the right family member.

10. Failing to Seek Help

Successful completion of the FAFSA form is no easy task. If you're flustered, seek help. There's a FAFSA hotline available to help you navigate the process as well as free online resources, such as the FAFSA calculator.

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