For as essential as it is to the college experience as a whole, FAFSA - the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form - is something of a mystery to students and parents. Filling out and filing the FAFSA form is complicated, detailed, and often tedious process, with many opportunities for error that prospective university students really just cannot afford. As such, in an attempt to help both parents and their college-bound children understand FAFSA a little better before they begin the process of filling it out and filing it.
For starters, if a student wants to be considered for any federal financial aid, he or she must fill out and file the FAFSA form. The majority of colleges and universities within the United States actually require potential students to submit FAFSA, in order to determine what kind of student aid for which he or she will qualify. Even if a student does not think he or she will qualify for financial assistance of the federal variety, he or she is still encouraged to fill out the FAFSA form. There are, after all, many loans which are not dependent on a student's financial need. For example, although subsidized Stafford Loans are need-based loans, unsubsidized Stafford Loans are not and even students who do not qualify for any other need-based aid can qualify for the unsubsidized Stafford.
A lot of students and parents do not know when to file FAFSA. While many colleges and universities have their own individual deadlines, it is always better to submit the FAFSA form as early as possible. This is because a great many colleges and universities in the United States grant financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis. On that note, students and parents should realized that it takes longer for a paper application to be filed and analyzed than it does when FAFSA is filed electronically. Furthermore, it is also important to remember that a new FAFSA must be filed each academic year, as long as the student wishes to be considered for federal aid.
For dependent students - students who do not financially support themselves - a lot of the most common questions revolve around the family structure. So, if a student's parents are still married to one another, provide information for both of them on the FAFSA form. If a student's parent is a widow or widower, supply information only on the living parent. If a student's parents are divorced, the custodial parent's information applies. If a student's parents are divorced and have joint, completely equal custody, provide information for whichever parent provides the highest amount of financial support. If a student's parents are divorced and the parent who supplies the most financial support has remarried, provide information on both that parent and the step-parent.
It is generally considered better to file FAFSA electronically, because not only is it then submitted and analyzed much faster than the paper application, but students have the option of going back and correcting any errors. Having a perfectly correct FAFSA increases a student's chances of receiving federal financial aid exponentially.
Finally, if students and/or parents need help with filing FAFSA, there are a variety of sources available. Among them include the student's guidance counselor, the student's prospective college, and several financial aid services located on the internet.
Gary Marjani is author of several articles pertaining to student financial aid such as FAFSA , Stafford Loan , Pell Grant , etc.