The 7 Biggest FAFSA Mistakes College Students Make—and How to Avoid Them

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In an earlier post, we outlined the costly mistakes families and students often make when first applying for federal student aid. The importance of staying focused on avoiding filing mistakes doesn't change as you progress through college. For instance, not filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as close to October 1 as possible without making unnecessary mistakes can cost current college students and graduate students thousands of dollars.

We spoke to Rick Castellano, VP of Corporate Communications at Sallie Mae, to get the top seven tips to help your family get the most financial aid possible:

  1. Not double checking repopulated information

    When you sign in as a returning student, certain information such as your name and address will fill in automatically from information you provided last year. Especially, if you or a parent experienced a name change, the information may be inaccurate. Inaccuracies can cause delays in receiving aid or even alter the amount of aid you receive.

  2. Thinking you won't get financial aid because you didn't your first year

    There are a number of factors that affect whether you get funding from your college towards your education. For instance, some aid such as university grants can be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Thus, if you didn't fill out your application until December last year, your school's grant aid may have already run out for the year. Also, you or your family's income may be lower or higher this year, too.

  3. Not filing the special circumstances form if income drops

    FAFSA's financial need calculation is based on income from the prior tax year. As an independent student you may have lower income because you returned to school last year and quit your job. As a dependent student, you could have a parent whose income dropped since then. If either is the case, request and fill out a special circumstances form from your financial aid office. That way your financial aid package will be based on your current financial circumstances. Fill out the form as soon as possible to not miss out on any aid that is first-come, first served.

  4. Not talking to your school's financial aid office

    The FAFSA form is only a starting point. There may be quite a few additional scholarships you may qualify for that your financial aid office knows about. While there, they can also tell you if there are deadlines for scholarships and grants where qualifying for the awards starts with filling out the FAFSA. Try to make an in-person appointment if you're near campus, so you don't feel rushed in answering questions.

  5. Not listing transfer school

    The federal government doesn't automatically know you intended to change schools. Thus, it's very important that you list any school you may attend. If not, they won't know you do want financial help. If you're unsure if you're transferring, list the potential school anyway.

  6. Thinking FAFSA is your only route towards paying for college

    Filling out the FAFSA form is a great starting point for paying for college but isn't an endpoint. Look for private scholarships and consider low-interest private loans versus higher-interest parent PLUS loans. Your financial aid office can help you determine a reasonable amount to borrow.

  7. Not filling out the FAFSA because you think your family income is too high

    Filing for FAFSA also puts you in the running for aid not necessarily tied to family income. Most colleges give out some non-financial need-based aid, although the percentage of students varies from school to school. Five schools, including Rhodes College, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, and the New England Conservatory of Music, gave out non need-based scholarships or grants to at least 50% of their students in the 2016-2017 academic year, according to USA Today. Note: For some schools, families with incomes near $200,000 still received need-based grants as well. Especially with higher-tuition schools, what they determine need is may vary from the definition many families believe is the standard.