College is expensive (as you’ve probably been told!), so of course financial aid is important. There are several types of aid you can apply for (like grants, loans and scholarships), which may seem intimidating and complicated. Believe us, though; it’s worth it!
Dealing with financial documents isn’t everyone’s forte, especially when all of those forms can be a little complicated and confusing. As a high school student, you may not be completely used to filling out government-issued paperwork that asks you for personal financial information. This means that each year, a number of students will end up making mistakes and end up missing out on certain financial aid opportunities.
Luckily for you, we have some advice for the financial aid process and how to avoid common mistakes. Here are a few errors you should do your best to avoid when applying for financial aid!
1. Missing deadlines
This mistake may seem obvious, but it’s extremely important, not to mention much easier to avoid than you’d think! The FAFSA, among many other financial aid forms, requires a lot of fiscal information from various people within your family, so it can be easy to accidentally leave a portion of the form to the last minute and have it end up being something that a parent needs to fill out.
Even worse, your parents may think they need to do something before filling out the form, but in reality it’s something that can wait. For example, a common mistake is missing deadlines because a parent hasn’t yet filed a tax return. “Students should not wait until tax returns are filed to submit a FAFSA,” says Audren Morris-Sandoval, manager of compliance and processing at UCLA’s financial aid office. “The FAFSA allows the student to provide estimated tax information and later make necessary corrections.”
Deadlines are also important because there might be extra requirements even after you turn your forms in. For example, some colleges require you to fill out more financial information after you’ve turned in your government-issued forms (like the CSS Profile). The later you turn these forms in, the more of a bind you may find yourself in!
You should know when paperwork is due and what extra actions they might require in advance so you don’t miss important deadlines. Before you even begin filling out your various forms, map out the deadlines. Visit the websites for each form requirement and find out when your application will be due. Writing these dates out on a calendar will help you visualize when you’ll need to finish the forms and send them in!
2. Entering incorrect numerical information
Again, this might seem simple, but if you mess up inputting certain dates, numbers and names, it can really have an impact on your application process. For example, entering an incorrect social security number for either you or your parent on the FAFSA can create a bigger problem than you may think.
“This can cause significant delays in processing financial aid,” says Chandra Owen, training coordinator for the Office of Financial Aid at Michigan State University. “The financial aid office will need to collect a copy of the student’s information to correct it before going any further in the process.”
While the FAFSA does have a period of time in which information on the documents can be changed and updated, making a mistake on an important piece of information like a social security number can’t be taken care of so easily.
3. Not paying attention to how much you’re borrowing
There’s an annual loan limit for federal loans as well as a lifetime limit that students can borrow. For a dependent undergraduate student, the lifetime limit (both subsidized and unsubsidized) is $31,000, and for an independent, it’s $57,000. For both students, no more than $23,000 of that amount may be in subsidized loans. Because there’s a cutoff, it’s important not to get too financial-aid-happy and start applying for more aid than you’re allowed.
“Many students do not track their borrowing and some reach their maximum before completing their degree,” Owen says. That can cause delays later in their college careers.
Not only should you keep track of how much you’re borrowing for your own personal knowledge, but it’s also information that your college needs as well. “Additionally, students sometimes fail to inform the financial aid of outside scholarships or other education-related resources, and as a result, may end up being over-awarded,” says Morris-Sandoval. The student is then required to repay a portion of the aid that they received.
There are a number of factors to be aware of in order to avoid this mistake. “Budgeting each year, reducing spending on non-essentials and visiting the NSLDS Student Access Site to view how much money has already been borrowed is highly recommended to assist in planning and making positive choices,” Owen says. And, as Morris-Sandoval recommended, you should be aware of what aid you’re receiving from different sources and take action to report it to your school’s financial aid office.
4. Missing signatures
This is yet another seemingly obvious mistake to avoid, but also another one that may be more vital than you’d think. If you’re completing the income information on the FAFSA, both you and your parents must sign it using your federal PIN, which is essentially your electronic signature and password for your personal records.
“In some cases we receive the FAFSA without their PIN or signature, [which] can significantly delay the financial aid process,” Owen says.
In order to avoid this simple mistake, Owen recommends visiting the Federal Student Aid website, where you can apply for a federal PIN or request a duplicate PIN.
5. Putting health care information in the wrong field
Owen says that students and parents often include employer-paid health care as untaxed income, which isn’t correct. There’s a specific section on the FAFSA that requires info about untaxed income, and one of the questions refers to Box 12 on a person’s W-2 (the federal tax form that states how much an employee was paid in a year).
“We are finding an increase of parents including the amount their employer paid toward their healthcare, when it is not required,” Owen says. “This can make it appear that the student or parent has more income than they actually have, which may disqualify [the student] for certain financial aid grants and need-based loans.”
On that note, make sure that you follow all directions so you avoid putting more information down than you need to. Not only is it dangerous to accidentally hold back information and not fill out certain portions of the forms, but it’s also risky to give too much data and in the wrong places. Making one small mistake, whether it be withholding info or giving too much, can cause big problems for your application!
6. Throwing out information once you’re done with it
So you’ve finished your forms and notified your school—now all there is to do is wait! But before you toss those extra forms, fiscal numbers and financial documents in the trash, remember that you’ll need them in the future. Many students think that because all their information is in an online form and is being taken care of by the government and their school, they’re not responsible for it anymore. But the truth is, you’ll need to fill out similar financial forms every year.
Make sure that all this financial information is kept safe and sound in a binder or folder. This way, you won’t be running around, looking for all sorts of fiscal information that you need in order to fill out more forms next year. Saving all your financial information from this year may save you from a huge headache next time!
Though these mistakes are common, they can all be easily avoided. Financial forms can certainly be daunting, but as long as you follow directions and fill out everything correctly, you should be fine. Make sure to triple check what you’ve filled out! Good luck, and happy applying!