Maximize your student financial aid with an early FAFSA

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As college students file back from winter break, their focus lies in new classes, new diets and new goals for 2014. What may slide under the radar at the start of a new year is filing for financial aid. But that could be a mistake.

In many states, filing in January (or very soon after if need be) will grant students more aid than if they do it later in the year. That means you’ll want to get a start on it as soon as possible. Use these tips for filing the 2014 free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) on time, correctly and error-free:

Some states, including Illinois, are first-come/first-served. In a tips sheet released this month by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, the NASFAA says that the sooner you complete the FAFSA, the more aid you could be eligible to receive.

Reapply every year
Families make the mistake of not filing at all because they think they will not be eligible for aid. You never know what aid you will receive, so why not file? “At worst, they’ll be out the time it takes to file the FAFSA (which is usually 30 minutes or less); at best, they might end up qualifying for significant amounts of aid,” Frank says. In addition, just because you filed your FAFSA your first year of college, does not mean your aid is set for the rest of your education. You must reapply for FAFSA each calendar year you attend school, and pay attention to any rule changes, such as the new rules implemented in 2014.

Make deadlines
Many states use the FAFSA as the initial application for state grant aid. Pay attention to your state’s deadlines as well as your school’s filing deadline. It is important to find out the financial aid deadlines of all the schools you are interested in attending, says Melissa M. Stephens, interim director of student financial services at Western Connecticut State University. “Not meeting a deadline can result in the loss of funding for the student.” 

Income Tax filing before FAFSA isn’t necessary
Since the FAFSA asks for tax information, people think they need to have their income taxes completed before filing the FAFSA. Vince Frank, director of financial aid at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, says that if you do not have your federal tax return filed before the financial aid deadline, then complete the FAFSA with estimated data or the previous year’s filed taxes. “You can always go back and change the data after the taxes have been filed,” Frank says. “Always contact the Office of Financial Aid before making changes to your FAFSA—many times the school will be able to do that.”

Spell your name correctly
One of the most common errors applicants make when filing the FAFSA is putting in the wrong information. Frank says, “People enter incorrect Social Security numbers, dates of birth and even spellings of names!” Make sure to input your legal name, as it appears on your Social Security card, and your correct date of birth. These mistakes lead to an invalid FAFSA, and therefore no aid for you.

Read questions carefully
A common mistake is to misreport federal taxes, and this can be avoided by carefully reading what each question is asking for. “For example, the FAFSA instructions tell the applicant specifically from which line on the tax return—whether the 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ—to obtain that information,” Frank says. “Many families mistakenly report their federal amount withheld from the W-2, which 99 percent of the time is not the same amount as the tax liability from the 1040.”

Don’t pay to file
Stephens reiterates that you should not pay to complete a FAFSA form. “The FAFSA is a free application,” Melissa says. “Many if not all financial aid offices offer assistance with completing the FAFSA.”

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