10 Common FAFSA Mistakes to Avoid
You’ll have a better chance at receiving money for college if you avoid several common mistakes when filling out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form. Such mistakes include not completing the form on time, not filling it out correctly, or forgetting to sign and submit.
Not Completing the FAFSA® Form at All
We hear all kinds of reasons for not completing the FAFSA form: “The FAFSA form is too hard.” “It takes too long to complete the form.” “I’ll never qualify anyway, so why does it matter?”
It does matter. For one, contrary to popular belief, you may qualify for federal student aid because it doesn’t have an income cut-off. It takes into account factors like the size of your family and your year in school. Also, the FAFSA form is not only the application for the Federal Pell Grant. It’s also the application for Federal Work-Study funds, federal student loans, and even scholarships and grants offered by your state, school, or a private organization.
If you want to get the most financial aid possible, fill out the FAFSA form right away. Many states have limited funds, so they may have early FAFSA deadlines.
The FAFSA form doesn’t take too much time to complete, and it includes help text for each question. Be sure to sign and submit!
You could potentially miss out on thousands of dollars to help you pay for college if you don’t complete the FAFSA form on time.
Not Filing the FAFSA® Form by the Deadline
You should fill out the FAFSA form as soon as possible on or after Oct. 1, but you should definitely fill it out before your earliest FAFSA deadline. Each state and school sets its own deadline, and some are very early.
Not Getting an FSA ID Before Filling Out the FAFSA® Form
It’s important to get a StudentAid.gov account username and password (FSA ID) before filling out the FAFSA form. Why? When you register for an FSA ID, you may need to wait up to three days before you can use it to sign your FAFSA form electronically.
You and your parent (if you’re considered a dependent student) will each need your own separate FSA IDs to sign the FAFSA form online. Do not share your FSA IDs with each other! Doing so could cause problems or delays with your financial aid. Don’t wait!
Not Using Your FSA ID to Start the FAFSA® Form
When you begin your FAFSA form, you will need to identify yourself as one of the following:
- I am the student
- I am a parent
- I am a preparer
If you’re the student, you should choose the first option. Why? When you do, some of your personal information (name, Social Security number [SSN], date of birth, etc.) will automatically load into your application. This will prevent you from running into a common error that occurs when your verified FSA ID info doesn’t match your FAFSA info. Also, you won’t have to enter your FSA ID again if you transfer your tax information from the IRS or sign your FAFSA form electronically.
Not Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT)
One of most difficult parts about filling out the FAFSA form is entering the financial information. But thanks to a partnership with the IRS, students and parents who are eligible can automatically transfer necessary 2021 tax information into the 2023–24 FAFSA form using the IRS DRT. It’s the fastest, most accurate way to enter your tax return information into the FAFSA form, so if you’re given the option to “Proceed to the IRS” button, take advantage of it!
Not Reading Definitions Carefully
When it comes to completing the FAFSA form, you’ll want to read each definition and each question carefully. Sometimes the FAFSA form is looking for very specific information that may not be obvious.
Here are some items that have very specific (but not necessarily intuitive) definitions according to the FAFSA form:
- Legal guardianship
To determine your dependency status, the FAFSA form asks, “Does someone other than your parent or stepparent have legal guardianship of you, as determined by a court in your state of legal residence?” Many students incorrectly answer “yes” here. For this question, the definition of legal guardianship does not include custody or your parents—even if they were appointed by a court to be your guardians. Also, you cannot be your own legal guardian.
The FAFSA form has very specific guidelines about which parent’s information to report. Spoiler alert: It has nothing to do with who claims you on their taxes. You can use this guide to help you figure out which parent to report on the FAFSA form.
- Number of family members (household size)
The FAFSA form has a specific definition regarding how you should determine your family size. Read the instructions carefully. Many students incorrectly report this number, especially when the student doesn’t physically live with their parent.
- Number of family members in college
Enter the number of people in your (or your parents’) household who will attend college at least half-time at the same time as you. Don’t forget to include yourself, but don’t include your parents in this number, even if they’re in college. This number should never be greater than your number of family members.
- Net worth of investments
We’ve outlined some specific items that should and shouldn’t be included as investments on the FAFSA form. For example, a college savings plan like a 529 account is considered an investment*, while the value of the home in which you reside and the value of your retirement accounts are not. Find more info about figuring out the net worth of your investments.
- Taxable college grants and scholarships
For this question, you report only college grant and scholarship amounts reported to the IRS as income. That means you should not use the amount listed on your 1098-T; you should report the amount listed on your tax return. Do not use the number in the adjusted gross income (AGI) field. Find information about the types of taxable college grants and scholarships that you might report to the IRS. If you didn’t file taxes, you should enter zero.
* If you’re a dependent student, you should report the value of any college savings accounts as a parent asset and not a student asset.
Inputting Incorrect Information
Here are some examples of common errors we see when people complete the FAFSA® form:
Confusing Parent Information With Student Information
We know many parents will fill out the FAFSA form for their children, but remember, it is the student’s application. When the FAFSA form says “you” or “your,” it’s referring to the student, so make sure to enter your (the student’s) information. If the form is asking for your parent’s information, it will specify that in the question.
Entering Info That Doesn’t Match Your FSA ID Info
After you create an FSA ID, the Social Security Administration receives and verifies your information (name, SSN, date of birth). If you enter a different name, SSN, and/or date of birth on the FAFSA form, you’ll receive an error message. This is often the result of either a typo or mixing up student information and parent information. Avoid delays by triple-checking the information you entered. Learn how to resolve this error if your information isn’t matching.
Amount of Your Income Tax
The FAFSA form is asking for your assessed income tax liability, not the amount of income tax withheld and not your adjusted gross income. We know this can be complicated. To avoid this common error, we recommend you transfer your tax information to the FAFSA form using the IRS DRT. Or you can find which tax line number you should use to find the amount of your income tax. (Note: It will depend on which IRS form you filed.)
Not Reporting Required Information
Even if you fully support yourself, pay your own bills, and file your own taxes, you may still be considered a dependent student for federal student aid purposes. If so, you must provide parent information on your FAFSA® form.
Dependency guidelines for the FAFSA form are determined by the U.S. Congress. They are different from the IRS dependency guidelines.
Find out whether you need to provide parent information by answering these dependency status questions. If you’re considered a dependent student and don’t provide parent information, we may not process your FAFSA form and/or you may qualify for unsubsidized loans only. Find more info about what happens if you don’t fill out parent information.
Additional Financial Information
If you follow our recommendation and use the IRS DRT, most of the financial information required on the FAFSA form will be filled in automatically for you. However, the IRS DRT doesn’t populate everything. Some numbers, including many items in the “Additional Financial Information” section, must be manually entered.
If you used the IRS DRT, you’ll see that some boxes in that section are prechecked and the fields prefilled with “Transferred from the IRS.” However, other items, such as “Payments to tax-deferred pension and retirement savings plans” and others, cannot transfer from the IRS. You must review manually each item in the list, select the box if it applies to you, and enter the appropriate amount by referencing your relevant financial records. In the case of payments to tax-deferred pension and retirement savings plans, you can find that information on your W-2 form.
Listing Only One College
Unless you’re applying to only one college or already know where you’re going to school, you should include more than one. Colleges can’t see the other schools you’ve added, so you should add all colleges you’re considering to your FAFSA® form, even if you aren’t sure whether you’ll apply or be accepted.
You can add up to 10 schools at a time. If you’re applying to more than 10 schools, you’ll need to remove one of the ten schools already listed on your FAFSA form. You may choose which school to replace with the new school. The school removed from the list will not have automatic access to any new information you provide after you’ve removed that school.
It doesn’t hurt your application to add more schools. In fact, you don’t even have to remove schools in which you decide not to apply. If you don’t end up applying or getting accepted to a school, the school can just disregard your FAFSA form. However, you can remove schools at any time to make room for new schools.
Note: If you’re a resident of certain states, the order in which you list the schools on your FAFSA form might matter. Find out whether your state has a requirement for the order you list schools on your FAFSA form.
Not Signing the FAFSA® Form
So many students answer every single question asked but fail to sign the FAFSA® form with their FSA ID and submit the form. This happens for many reasons—maybe you forgot your FSA ID or your parent isn’t with you to sign with the parent FSA ID, so your application is left incomplete.
Don’t let this happen to you.
- If you don’t know your FSA ID, select “Forgot My Username” and/or “Forgot My Password.”
- If you don’t have an FSA ID, create your FSA ID now.
If you’re not able to sign with your FSA ID, take advantage of the option to mail a signature page. If you would like confirmation of your FAFSA form submission, you can check your status immediately after you submit your FAFSA form online.