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Get a pro to help fill out your FAFSA for free

During College Goal Sunday, financial planners from across the country offer free FAFSA tutorials. (Photo: College Goal Sunday)

With 100 questions – twice as many as the typical income tax form  —  the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be intimidating to parents and college hopefuls alike. Screw it up, and you could miss your best shot at getting loans, need-based grants and some merit-based grants that could help bankroll your child’s college education.

For a couple hundred bucks, you could hire a professional to take care of the form on your behalf. But don’t open your wallet just yet. The three-month period between January and March is the best time for families to find free help.

Thirty-four states are participating in College Goal Sunday this year, a program that provides hundreds of free college planning events for parents and high school students. At more than 1,000 events running through March, states will deploy college aid experts, school counselors and financial planners to walk families through the FAFSA process.

Timing is everything

“One of the biggest myths about the FAFSA is that you have time to fill it out,” says Tiffany Reese, senior program manager for the United Student Aid Funds, an organization that helps low-income students get college aid and coordinates CGS events nationwide.

You can file a FAFSA as early as Jan. 1 and the federal “deadline” for applications is June 30. But don’t be fooled -- many families will have to submit their applications months before that, depending on FAFSA deadlines established by their state or college. It’s important to know your state’s deadline and file well in advance. Connecticut and Oregon, for example, require applications by Feb. 1. And because federal aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, waiting until the last minute to file could harm your chances of getting aid.

“The closer you get to the deadlines, the greater the chance that you’ll miss out,” Reese says.

Avoid common mistakes

FAFSA errors aren’t uncommon, and mistakes that may seem insignificant could, in fact, mean thousands of dollars in lost student aid.

Reese says the most common error she sees is when parents include their own Social Security numbers on the application, rather than their child’s. And because the bulk of questions on the FAFSA require digging up information from past tax returns, some parents trip up over small details like their adjusted gross income or which assets to list (for example, stuff like 529 college savings plans has to be counted under assets but a parent’s retirement plan does not).

FAFSAs now have a tax retrieval tool that makes it easy to pull your information directly from the IRS, but if parents aren’t U.S. citizens or have had to amend past tax returns, they may not be able to access the tool, Reese says.

Once you’ve filled out the FAFSA your work isn’t done there. Since some states’ deadlines fall before the end of tax season, families may have to submit their applications before completing their taxes. That’s perfectly fine. In this case, you’ll have to check the “Will File” box on the FAFSA and use estimates of your income in the meantime. Once you’ve filed, you can go back to update the FAFSA application with your new tax information. If you don’t, the FAFSA application will not be considered complete.  

It’s also important to remember that the FAFSA isn’t a one-and-done deal — you have to submit a new application for each year you or your child attends college.

If you’re seeking help from a pro, whether through a CGS event or an expert you’ve found on your own, make sure you bring all the necessary information. CGS has a handy list on its website, which includes things like your Social Security number, current bank statements, amount of child support received (if any), and a driver’s license.

And never trust anyone who says the FAFSA isn’t free. In addition to free CGS events, you can download this free FAFSA guide by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, online.

Find a free CGS in your state here: http://www.collegegoalsundayusa.org/

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