It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Christmas already?! NO! It’s time to fill out the FAFSA!
For those of you who in your second year of college and beyond, the FAFSA is like that one person in your life you find really annoying but who you’re obligated to hang out with at least once a year (a beloved aunt’s weird new boyfriend? Your adult partner’s best friend from middle school? Take your pick!). If you’re applying to college for the first time, your relationship with the FAFSA is one I’m sure you’ll tolerate enjoy for years to come.
Though accurately and promptly filling out the FAFSA form is always super important (it’s what determines the amount of federal, state, and school financial aid you can receive!), this year, the stakes might be even higher, which is why I’m writing about it today.
In order to determine how much aid you’ll be eligible for, this year’s FAFSA will look at your/your family’s 2019 tax returns. Why might that be a problem? Well, due to the unprecedented economic upheavals of COVID-19, you/your family likely isn’t making the kind of money you saw two years ago, which can make the 2019 tax information an inaccurate metric of your estimated need. Fortunately, there are a couple of things you can do about that.
Fill Out the FAFSA EARLY
Completing the FAFSA early is always a good idea. This is especially true if you’re applying to college for the first time and are preoccupied with taking a last-minute SAT/ACT, writing essays, and getting all your other documents together. With all of that going on, it’s easy to let the FAFSA slip through the cracks and find yourself right before the deadline (or worse - after!), realizing you haven’t even started yet. Everyone wants to be considered for financial aid, but if you and your family are suffering financial hardship this year due to COVID-19, completing the FAFSA on time is more important than ever.
Some states may also award grants on a first-come, first-served basis. Because state money can be a huge source of aid, make sure to check your state’s FAFSA deadline and submit by then (but again, the earlier the better). Speaking of varied due-dates, schools will also have their own FAFSA deadlines, so it’s crucial to check in with them, too.
Fill Out the FAFSA ACCURATELY
This may go without saying, especially for those who are FAFSA veterans, but for the newbies, I want to emphasize this now. I remember being a fresh-eyed youth filling out the FAFSA for the first time. Both of my divorced parents had busy schedules, and I’ve always preferred to get things done on my own, so I was eager to knock out this requirement by myself. However, I quickly found that just using my “best guess” concerning my parents’ jobs and income histories (and Social Security numbers…) wasn’t going to end well for me. Also, the time it takes to go back and correct even the smallest error is time spent not turning in your completed FAFSA. Do it right the first time, preferably with your parents and/or guardians physically by your side, for the best results. (There’s also a data retrieval tool that makes submitting an accurate FAFSA even easier!)
Reach Out to Schools Now Rather than Later
If you/your family has suffered a significant financial hardship in the last year, make this clear to the colleges to which you’re applying. Of course, your early and accurate FAFSA will relay a lot of crucial information, but then again, if there’s one thing we’ve learned in 2020, it’s that anything can happen and our circumstances can change at the drop of a hat. If you or a family member happens to lose a job and/or have a major change in income after you submit the FAFSA, you need to let schools know the change in your situation. It’s better that they know your circumstances now than in the spring, after they’ve already offered you a financial aid package that might not be enough and are being inundated with similar requests from thousands of other students.
If you ever for a second feel ashamed or guilty about honestly telling a college about your less-than-awesome financial situation, know that not only are you not alone (especially this year) but also that it’s literally the financial aid office’s job to help students afford an education at their school. That’s the one reason they exist. No one outside of your family will ever just assume that you need extra aid; you need to be proactive and honest about the conditions under which you can accept a school’s offer.
Does the thought of getting the financial aid you need still leave you feeling overwhelmed? Try checking out the FAFSA’s page devoted specifically to COVID-19-related questions. Also know that there are more sources for aid than just schools, states, and even the federal government - let ThinquePrep’s college counseling services connect you with scholarship opportunities you’ve probably never even heard of!
Nina Calabretta is a college English instructor, tutor, and writer native to Orange County, CA. When she’s not writing or helping students improve their skills as readers, writers, and critical thinkers, she can be found hiking the local trails with friends and family or curled up with a good book and her cat, Betsy. She has been part of the ThinquePrep team since 2018.
With offices located in beautiful Orange County, ThinquePrep specializes in the personalized mentorship of students and their families through the entire college preparation process and beyond. With many recent changes to college admissions - standardized tests, financial aid, varied admissions processes - the educational landscape has never been more competitive or confusing. We’re here from the first summer program to the last college acceptance letter. It’s never too early to start thinking about your student’s future, so schedule your complimentary consultation today!