14 Most Common FAFSA® Errors
Our team knows the FAFSA®–and the common mistakes made on it.
Over the last 3 years, we’ve helped thousands of students fill out the form (using our FAFSA® Made Easier), and walked countless confused parents through how to correctly report their complicated home/financial situation.
Here are the top 14 most common FAFSA® mistakes we’ve seen, in rough order of most common to least common.
- 1. Imprecise legal names
- 2. Swapping parent & student answers
- 3. Round numbers (Estimated financial figures)
- 4. Incorrect SSNs
- 5. School email instead of personal email
- 6. High school grade level instead of college grade level
- 7. Reporting child support or alimony
- 8. Forgetting to report some income (all zeroes)
- 9. Reporting parental separation incorrectly
- 10. Reporting the wrong parent (or missing a stepparent)
- 11. Adding cents as dollars
- 12. Including the wrong things under “Investment net worth”
- 13. Reporting UGMA/UTMA custodial accounts as parent assets
- 14. Reporting college savings accounts as student assets
- Did this list freak you out?
1. Imprecise legal names
For your FAFSA® to process correctly, you need to enter both student and parent names, exactly as they appear on each person’s Social Security Card.
But for many people, this can be confusing. Your “usual” name (even the one they might be enrolled at school with, or signed up for a bank account with) might not precisely match your legal name. Common mistakes include:
- Middle names: Is your middle name part of your legal name? What if you have multiple middle names?
- Double-barrel last names: Did you use a hyphen or a space? Do both names actually appear on your Social Security card, or just one?
- Suffixes: If you’re “Jr” or “the second,” is this just unofficial, or is that suffix literally written into your legal name? If it’s something like “Jr,” is there a period after the “Jr”?
- Non-English names: Some students or families might have two names, one that is an Anglicized version of their home language name, and another that is their “English language” or “American” name. Pay attention to which one is written on your social security card, and use that one.
2. Swapping parent & student answers
The FAFSA® form uses “you” or “your” to refer to the student. However, since parents often fill out the FAFSA® on behalf of their child, this can get confusing. Parents regularly answer these “you” questions about themselves, rather than their child.
This leads to some funny answers like:
- “Your” (the student’s) tax filing status as “Married filing jointly” — unlikely for a high school senior!
- “Your” (the student’s) birthday as Feb 12,1980 — a bit on the older side in high school, huh?
- “Your” (the student’s) number of children/dependents as 3 — that’s quite a lot of responsibility and mouths to feed, for a teenager…
- “Your” net worth of investment assets as $67,000 — whoa, that 18-year-old got to investing pretty early!
Of course, this also leads to some less funny paperwork (and delayed financial aid) later on, usually when colleges ask families to “verify” their reported information by sending in tax transcripts, etc.
So don’t be this person: Remember that you/your refers to the student!
(Psst – On the Going Merry FAFSA® Made Easier, we often add the student’s name for commonly confused questions, to make this clearer. Plus, we’ll show warning messages if you put in any “funny” or unusual answers like the ones above.)
3. Round numbers (Estimated financial figures)
We at Going Merry see this error so often that we call it the “round number problem.”
The FAFSA® asks very specific financial questions on the FAFSA® like:
- What was your parents’ 2021 Adjusted Gross Income (AGI)?
- What was your mom’s 2021 earnings?
- How much did your parents pay in 2021 income taxes?
All of these questions are accompanied by detailed instructions on which tax forms (and even which lines on the tax forms) to look at. However, every years, some families completely ignore these instructions and instead just estimate their earnings or income.
How do we know?
Because we say way too many forms with “round numbers” reported for all the financial figures. Very rarely are figures on taxes round numbers like “30,000.”
And why does this matter, if the number is just about right?
Well, these figures might look suspicious to a college financial aid officer, who might then ask you for additional “verification” — basically a formal process in which you need to supply evidence of these numbers via paperwork (like tax forms/transcripts), and then if there are discrepancies, the financial aid officer is required to manually amend your FAFSA®. All this is a bit of a headache, and more importantly, may cause crucial delays in getting you that financial aid money you need and deserve.
4. Incorrect SSNs
To submit your FAFSA® (and to get your FSA ID to sign your FAFSA®), you’ll need to enter your and your parents’ Social Security Numbers. A lot of times the federal government will not let you proceed because it will see that there’s a mismatch between these three key things:
- The SSN, as entered on the FAFSA®
- The SSN, as entered when registering for an FSA ID
- The SSN, as it appears on your Social Security Card
Sometimes the culprit is just your standard typo — one number that was off. But we’ve also seen cases where parents have just entered the wrong person’s SSN.
- For instance, a parent with two kids Bob and Sue might put Sue’s SSN into Bob’s FAFSA®.
- Or else, a parent might put their own (or their spouse’s) SSN instead of their child’s.
5. School email instead of personal email
The government FAFSA® form just asks you for your (the student’s) email. Many high school seniors simply enter their school email address because that’s the one they use most often for “official” or “educational” stuff.
But that would be a mistake.
Most high schools disable student emails, once they graduate. So if the federal government tries to send you an email (to that high school email address) during the summer, or in the early weeks of college, you simply won’t receive it. 🤦♀️
That’s why it’s always better to put a personal email address instead, one that you’ll continue to have access to long after you graduate.
6. High school grade level instead of college grade level
The FAFSA® asks you what grade level you’ll be starting next academic year (the one you’re applying for financial aid to fund).
For high school seniors, this usually means: What grade will you be starting college next year? That means the answer for most high school students should be: First year (freshman). However, students who are quickly skimming the form and seeing the key words “grade level” answer (too quickly, and incorrectly): “4th year / Senior.” Oops.
A related but less common version of this problem (but one we still see!) is for the question around what kind of degree the student will be pursuing. For most high school seniors, the answer is one of the following:
- Bachelors Degree (for a 4-year university/college degree)
- Associates Degree – Either “vocational/technical” or “General education/transfer” (for a 2-year community or junior college degree)
- Certificate or Diploma – For a trade school that doesn’t result in an Associates Degree, for example a beauty or hairstyling school
However, sometimes we see students incorrectly answer “Graduate or Professional Degree” because of the confusing naming. Students very reasonably (but wrongly) think:”I’ll be a high school graduate and am pursuing higher education for something professional.” This is incorrect because “Graduate or Professional Degree” refers to education you generally get after undergraduate college–like Masters degrees and PhDs, or to professional programs like medical school or law school.
7. Reporting child support or alimony
Child support and alimony are both confusing on the FAFSA®.
First, there are specific questions related to the amount of child support paid or received. In either case, child support should only be reported on PARENT finances if it meets two requirements:
- It consists of formal, legally required payments resulting from a divorce decree, separation agreement, or legal child support agreement. Informal payments should be instead reported as “other untaxed income.”
- The payments are made to the parent. Otherwise, payments made to the child should be reported under STUDENT finances, as “other income or bills paid on your behalf.”
Related to alimony, usually alimony is taxable and therefore included in a parent’s Adjusted Gross Income. However, it is not reported individually/separately on its own anywhere on the FAFSA® form.
8. Forgetting to report some income (all zeroes)
In the rush to complete the FAFSA® close to the opening date (December 2023), some families don’t double-check their finance sections. Since a lot of the questions are NOT relevant to many families (specific tax situations, deductions, etc.), what we see is families putting down $0 for everything, without reading carefully.
In the end, this means that sometimes families accidentally miss out on key lines/fields that they should have reported figures for. Common issues we see are:
- Added combined parent Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) but missed/zero individual parent incomes
- Added income but missed/zero income taxes paid
- Added income for one parent, but missed/zero income for the second parent
The other reason we’ve heard from students is that they “didn’t have the right tax forms” to fill out certain fields, so they just entered $0 as a placeholder and forgot to go back to fix these fields. Eek!
(Psst – This is exactly why, on Going Merry’s FAFSA® Made Easier, we made fields skippable, so you don’t have to answer everything to move to the next question. At the end, you can toggle to see “Unanswered questions” so you remember to fill in the information you skipped before. No more adding $0 as placeholders you then forget about!)
9. Reporting parental separation incorrectly
For the FAFSA®, you can only report your parents as “married or separated” if your parents live apart.
If your parents still live together even though they consider themselves “separated,” unfortunately on the FAFSA®, you need to report them as “Married.” This also means you would need to report financial information about both of them.
10. Reporting the wrong parent (or missing a stepparent)
In the case of a divorce OR a separation in which the parents live apart, the student only needs to report one parent. Here are two important rules of thumb:
- Which parent to report: Generally, they should report the parent they live with more often. If the student splits time equally between parents, then they should report the parent who provides more financial support.
- Reporting step-parents: If your reporting parent (the one you live with more often) has remarried, you have to include their spouse as your second parent. This is true even if your stepparent has not legally adopted you.
Choosing a parent is NOT related to which parent has more money, nor with how they report you on their taxes (e.g. if they claim you as a tax dependent or not).
11. Adding cents as dollars
Tax forms usually have both dollars and cents reported, so a figure might appear like “$28,309.35” — This means it’s 28,309 dollars and 35 cents.
However, on the FAFSA®, you’re meant to “round” to the nearest dollar, and ignore all cents. Unfortunately, some students miss this instruction and put in all the numbers.
What does that mean? 28 grand instead gets entered as $2.8 million. 😱
Yep, big mistake. Unfortunately, when families accidentally enter $2.8 million as their income, savings, or investments, they become a lot less likely to get financial aid than if they had entered their income as $28,000.
12. Including the wrong things under “Investment net worth”
The FAFSA® asks for both the student and parent “net worth of investment assets.” They then list a whole bunch of things that count as “investment assets.”
However, sometimes families still end up reporting things they should not. For example, the following should not be reported here:
- Primary home (neither the value of it, nor the mortgages/debt against it)
- Car (again, neither the value of it, not the debt/loan related to it)
- Retirement accounts like 401k (the government doesn’t want you dipping into this to pay for your kid’s college!)
13. Reporting UGMA/UTMA custodial accounts as parent assets
Custodial accounts should always be reported as assets the accountholder (usually the minor/student) owns. So for the FAFSA®, if the parent is the custodian of a UGMA/UTMA account on behalf of their child, the balance in this account should be reported under Student finances, not Parent Finances.
You should also be careful NOT to double-report this. (Some families accidentally/incorrectly put it under both Student and Parent Finances.)
14. Reporting college savings accounts as student assets
Confusingly, although UGMA/UTMA custodial accounts should be reported as student assets, college savings accounts (like 529, Coverdell, etc) should be reported as parent assets.
Did this list freak you out?
Yeah, we know. It’s because the FAFSA® is a bit intense. But that’s why we created the 100% free FAFSA® Made Easier, where we build in a lot of our learnings from common mistakes, to reword questions and provide more guidance/warnings when you need them. Plus, if you’re ever in doubt, you’re always one click away from our helpdesk of FAFSA® experts to support you. Sign up for Going Merry to access it.
And whether you use our FAFSA® or the government’s one: We wish you an error-free journey. May your FAFSA® application sail smoothly onto the computer of your dream college’s financial aid officer. And may it land you all the financial aid you need.
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