If you will be attending college next fall, your parents need to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) anytime after Saturday. The FAFSA is a single comprehensive form used for state, federal and institutional grants. While not exactly a picnic on the college quad, it is also not that daunting a task.
Here are some tips:
File online -- go to www.fafsa.gov (don't get confused with www.fafsa.com).
Get a PIN (personal identification number) -- you can apply for a PIN while completing your FAFSA or get it ahead of time at www.pin.ed.gov. The PIN will enable you to "sign" your form electronically.
Get together the necessary paperwork -- here's what you'll need: student's Social Security number, parents' federal income tax return from the previous year, student's driver's license, documentation of any untaxed income such as child support received, workers' compensation, etc., current bank statements, information on investments.
Don't wait until you complete your 2010 taxes -- you can complete the FAFSA with estimated numbers and then go back and update your information. The sooner you file the better. Some of the money available is on a first-come, first-serve basis.
List all household members -- be sure to include any dependent children if you provide half the support, regardless of whether they live with you or how many tax exemptions you take. Count any babies about to make an appearance in the next nine months.
"You" is not "you the parent" -- "you" is the student. Even though parents are completing the form and probably paying for the bulk of the college education, the "you" they are asking about is the student.
Don't inflate your wealth -- make sure you list your assets as of the date you're completing the FAFSA, not the end of the calendar year. Pay off any big expenses first, and if you're anticipating any windfalls, file the form before receiving them.
After you file it
Common FAFSA mistakes include: using nicknames instead of legal names; leaving fields blank -- use a 0 if the question doesn't apply to you; not including yourself in the household size; not having parents and children sign before filing.
Once you file your FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) with your official Expected Family Contribution (EFC). All of the colleges you listed (you can list 10) on the FAFSA will receive the same EFC number. Each college's financial aid office will use your EFC to calculate how much aid you will receive. The financial aid offices determine need by simply subtracting your Expected Family Contribution from the individual college's Cost of Attendance (COA). But understand that most colleges will create a package that includes loans (money you pay back later) and grants (free money). Read and compare the different award letters very carefully so you are well aware of the financial commitment you're making.
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.