You should fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible — even before you decide which school to attend — because some schools award aid on a first-come, first-served basis. But before you get started, here are five common FAFSA misconceptions to get straight.
Use NerdWallet’s free FAFSA Guide to help you through the process.
- Myth: Your family earns too much to be eligible for aid
If your family’s income is too high, you may not qualify for certain aid programs — namely, federal grants. But if you want to be considered for other aid, including work-study programs and federal student loans, you still need to fill out the FAFSA.
Plus, you won’t know what aid you’re eligible for until you apply. Dustin Smith, assistant director of financial aid at the University of San Francisco, encourages everyone to fill out the FAFSA regardless of their financial situation.
“There’s so much that goes into the (FAFSA) calculation,” Smith says. Factors include parents’ ages — the closer they are to retirement, the more aid their student is likely to get — and the number of siblings enrolled in college at once.
- Myth: The FAFSA is only for federal aid
In addition to federal grants, loans and work-study programs, you may be eligible for need-based and merit-based grants and scholarships from your state, college and private organizations. While some require additional applications, the FAFSA is “the first step” for many of these non-federal aid programs, says Rich Nickel, president of College Success Arizona, an organization that offers scholarships and mentoring to low-income and first-generation college students.
Even some schools and groups that offer merit-based scholarships use the FAFSA to understand how their award fits into a student’s full financial aid package, Nickel says. Knowing the full picture allows the school or organization to allocate their scholarships efficiently and avoid awarding too much aid to one student.
- Myth: You have to file 2015 taxes before you can file the FAFSA
You need to file the 2016-17 FAFSA based on 2015 taxes. But if you haven’t filed your taxes yet, you can use your 2014 return to estimate answers to FAFSA questions including your adjusted gross income, income tax and net worth for 2015.
When you do file your 2015 taxes, go back and update your FAFSA. You can opt to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which will populate the FAFSA based on your 2015 tax returns.
“Once you file your taxes, the use of that IRS retrieval tool is fairly seamless,” Nickel says.
- Myth: You only have to fill it out once
Filling out the FAFSA isn’t just a one-time event. You need to do it every year you want to be considered for financial aid.
Even if you filled it out previously and didn’t receive aid, it’s still worth filling out again — especially if your financial situation has changed, Smith says. For example, if your income is lower or you now have more than one student from the same household enrolled in college, you may qualify for more aid this year.
- Myth: The FAFSA is too long and confusing
With its reputation of being a major headache, the FAFSA often causes stress for applicants, Nickel says. But he likens FAFSA anxiety to worrying about going to the dentist: It’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be.
“Wondering and worrying and fretting is actually a lot worse than doing the form,” he says.
If you’re prepared with documents — including your Social Security card, 2015 tax information (or 2014 information to use in making estimates), and your current bank statements — filling out the FAFSA can take just 30 minutes.
If you have questions about the application, NerdWallet’s FAFSA Guide can help you understand how to fill out the FAFSA based on your family situation and immigration status. NerdWallet’s FAFSA Tutorial walks applicants through the process question-by-question.