(StatePoint) It’s not only football season. For current and incoming college students, it’s financial aid season, too, and that means completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA should be the first step families take in the planning-for-college process; it’s used by schools to put together financial aid packages, states use it to determine eligibility for state aid, and some scholarships require it as part of their applications.
“Regardless of whether you think you will qualify for funding, don’t fumble by simply not completing the application,” says Martha Holler, senior vice president, Sallie Mae.
By just completing the FAFSA, students can gain access to more than $120 billion in grants, work-study funds, and federal student loans.
Sallie Mae is offering six key points to help families move the ball down the field this FAFSA season:
• Get season tickets in advance. Complete the FAFSA as a high school senior — and every year in college, even graduate school. It’s the only way to remain eligible for federal student aid, and the amount of aid can vary year-over-year.
• Review the playbook before the game. Before beginning the application, both parents and students should create a username and password, a Federal Student Aid ID, and gather Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, bank statements, tax returns and W-2 forms. Having this information ready can expedite the process.
• Don’t miss the opening kick-off. Some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, or from programs with limited funds, so the earlier families fill out the FAFSA, the better their chances for aid. Additionally, submitting the FAFSA earlier could mean receiving financial aid award letters earlier. Timing varies by school, so families should check with financial aid offices and school websites for specifics.
• Go for the two-point conversion. Take advantage of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to import and convert tax information directly into the FAFSA. After some critical changes were made to address privacy and security issues, the tool is back, and more applicants will be eligible to use it this year.
• Watch out for trick plays. The only way to fill out a FAFSA is at fafsa.gov. Filing the FAFSA is always free, so watch out for sites that charge fees or make promises that sound too good to be true. Students can reduce the risk of identity theft by keeping their Federal Student Aid ID confidential and reporting any suspected fraudulent account activity immediately.
• Don’t be a Monday morning quarterback. Completing the FAFSA earlier means receiving critical information like the Student Aid Report (SAR) sooner. The SAR provides basic information about student eligibility for federal student aid and answers to the FAFSA questions. The SAR also includes the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which provides a clearer picture about eligibility for financial aid as families begin applying to colleges. Families who complete the FAFSA online typically receive their SAR within three to five days.
• Make your final draft picks. Families should list at least one school on the FAFSA. Some state aid is based on the order of how schools are listed, so families should consider listing state schools first.
For a full online playbook of tips and resources, visit SallieMae.com.
Don’t drop the ball this season. Take steps to secure financial aid for your college future.