If you’re hoping for aid or scholarships to help you pay for college, you need to fill out the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). Alan Gellman, chief marketing officer of Credible.com, shares six tips to help tackle the task.
TIP 1: Avoid scam websites
Gellman cautions people filling out the FAFSA to avoid scam sites and only apply through the official website, fafsa.ed.gov. Any website that asks you to pay a fee to apply is not affiliated with the government. Remember, “The F in FAFSA means free,” Gellman says.
TIP 2: Apply ASAP
The FAFSA application opened on October 1, and deadlines vary, but Gellman recommends applying as soon as possible because many schools distribute aid on a first-come, first-served basis.
“[Schools] have a certain amount aid to give out, and they are going to determine what they’re going to offer you—you want to be on the front end of that,” Gellman says. “The sooner the better. You are best served to apply as soon as you possibly can.”
TIP 3: Be thorough
Filling out your FAFSA as accurately as possible is an important part of ensuring you have the best chance at getting financial aid or scholarships, Gellman says.
“Being thorough makes a big difference,” he says. “It’s all about maximizing your aid and ultimately, minimizing the debt you need to take on.”
Having all your documents available and ready, including your Social Security information, tax returns, W-2 forms and bank statements will help you be prepared to fill out the form in a timely and accurate way.
Even if you don’t think you will qualify to receive need-based financial aid, you still need to fill out the FAFSA in order to receive work study or scholarships. So be prepared, no matter what your end goal.
TIP 4: Make sure your aid package is accurate
After you fill out the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), which shows you how much aid you’re eligible for. Make sure you review the report to see that all the information you submitted to the FAFSA is accurate—it’s not too late to go back and fix mistakes or make changes, Gellman says.
Once you have the SAR, you can really start to plan how you’ll pay for college, Gellman says.
“First, use up all the grants, work study, and scholarships you can. Second, take a subsidized federal loan—that means you’re not paying interest while you’re in school,” Gellman explains. “If there’s still a gap, you may want to look at private student loans.”
TIP 5: Don’t be afraid to negotiate
Just because you are eligible for a certain amount of aid on paper, doesn’t mean the amount is set in stone, Gellman says.
“Don’t be afraid to negotiate with a school of your choice—they can often give you more than what its initial offer to you may be,” Gellman says. “Go back to them and say, ‘I really want to come to this school, but I need more support.’ They’ll often come back with more help.”
TIP 6: Consider your future money goals
Gellman advises students to think about their college choices and future career options before they even apply for financial aid. It’s important to understand how much debt you’ll be taking on, and how you’ll pay for it down the line, he says.
“So many people are saddled with debt, and it really impacts their future decisions,” Gellman says. “Having some sense of what kind of salary you’re going to have over time and what your debt burden is going to be is so critical. Think about your future.”