The 7 Trickiest FAFSA Questions & How to Approach Them

Every year, college students all over the country complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. The FAFSA determines student eligibility for federal loans, grants, and work-study as well as financial aid at their colleges and universities of choice.

Student reviewing FAFSA questions

What should I remember about the FAFSA?

This year, the FAFSA becomes available in December 2023. After you submit your application, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that gives you basic information about your eligibility for federal student aid and also indicates your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

EFC is the most important number on the form. It represents the estimated amount of money that your family can contribute to the cost of your college education.

In addition to the federal government, the majority of colleges and universities use your EFC to determine the financial aid package that they will offer you. Alternatively, some schools prefer to use the CSS Profile.* Though the outputs and resulting financial aid packages can be different, the CSS Profile is used for the same reason as the FAFSA: to help determine how much financial support a student needs.

However, you may also qualify for non-need-based aid, or for external scholarships (that may not use the FAFSA). These are scholarships offered by foundations or companies, and you can find them by signing up for a Going Merry account (to get matched to eligible scholarships).

For more information on filling out the FAFSA, check out our step-by-step guide.

**While the CSS Profile and the FAFSA are both used to determine financial aid, they differ in a few ways.

  1. The CSS Profile asks questions based on the specific schools you’re applying to, while the FAFSA questions are the same for everyone.
  2. The CSS Profile has a “Minimum Student Contribution” section while the FAFSA does not.
  3. The CSS Profile gives more decision-making power to financial aid officials.
  4. Home prices are taken into account on the CSS Profile, which can become an issue when home equity values rise.
  5. Lastly, the FAFSA is always free (as it’s provided by the government) and the CSS Profile has a cost (as it’s managed by the for-profit company, The College Board). As of 2018, the cost is $25 for the first school and $16 per additional school.
Student researching FAFSA application

How to Approach the Trickiest FAFSA Questions

Most of the questions on the FAFSA  might be quick to answer, but there are a few tricky ones that students often answer wrong, which is why we’re breaking down these FAFSA questions for you! 

Here are the 7 trickiest FAFSA questions and our best advice on how to approach them:

1. What name should I use, and how does it relate to my social security number?

While nicknames are cool, the FAFSA doesn’t appreciate them. The name that you enter must be an exact match to the name associated with your social security number or alien registration card. Otherwise, the federal government won’t be able to locate your information in the system. You should keep this in mind for both the student section and the parent section. 

This may be particularly important for you students with double-barrel last names (be consistent: are they separated with a space or a hyphen?) or multiple middle names (which ones are you legally registered with?). 

Also remember to use this same full, legal name when registering for your FSA ID (basically, an official username and password that will allow you to digitally “sign” your FAFSA).

Even though the FAFSA asks you for your legal status, both Green Card holders and U.S. citizens are treated the same, in terms of applying for financial aid. 

In fact, here are all the groups eligible for government financial aid: U.S. citizens; Green Card holders; conditional permanent residents; anyone with a legal status stating “asylum granted,” “refugee,” “indefinite parole,” “humanitarian parole,” or “Cuban-Haitian Entrant”; and citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands, or Micronesia.

DACA students are not eligible for federal student aid, but they are eligible to receive private institutional financial aid packages from many schools and sometimes state aid too. Therefore, for most DACA students, it’s still worth filling out the FAFSA if you have a social security number. The one exception is if you’re from a state (like California) with an “alternative” state form, and you will be studying in-state.

3. What is the Selective Service, and do I have to register?

Selective Service is better known as “the draft”–as in, mandatory military conscription. Registering doesn’t mean you’re signing up for the military, though; it just means that if the U.S. ever starts drafting people again (the last time was during the Vietnam War), your name would be on the list.

All males in the U.S. are required to register for the Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthday (either before or after their 18th birthday). After that period, they have up until their 26th birthday to file a late enrollment. Women are exempt from registering for the Selective Service. The Selective Service is an independent agency and National Defense partner that “ensures a fair and equitable draft,” should there be a draft.

The FAFSA asks men if they’ve enrolled for the Selective Service and, if they select no, it asks if they would like to register now. In the past, students who didn’t enroll by their 26th birthday would be ineligible to receive student aid from the government. However, recently there’s been a change in the laws, so you can now “No” there and still get federal aid.

4. Who does my “household size” include? 

Some students get confused when asked about their household size, which isn’t necessarily the number of people who live in your house. Rather, it’s the number of people that you (if you’re independent) or your family (if you’re dependent) support financially.  For instance, this would likely include any siblings away at college. 

Why does it matter so much? This little number makes a huge difference when determining the amount of financial aid you receive. Luckily, it’s not too difficult to figure out by following a few easy steps. First, you’ll need to determine if you’re a dependent student or an independent student.

There are 10 FAFSA questions to determine dependency. If you answer “no” to all of the questions, you’re considered a dependent student and must include your parents’ information on the FAFSA (more on that below). If you answer “yes” to one or more questions, you’re considered to be an independent student and only need to provide your own information. Now, let’s see how you can figure out your household size based on your dependency status.

For dependent students:

  1. Start with your parents and yourself.
  2. Add all children under the age of 24 that live in your parents’ house and receive more than half of their support from them. You can also include children who will be born during the school year, and siblings who are away at college and/or in the military service if they receive more than half of their support from your parents.
  3. Then add any other people who receive more than half of their support from your parents, and will continue to receive half of their support from them during the school year (e.g. an elderly relative, including grandparents who may live in assisted living with your parents supporting more than half).

For independent students:

  1. Start with yourself and your spouse (if married).
  2. Add your children who receive more than half of their support from you.

Then add any other people living with you who receive over half of their support from you and will continue to receive more than half of their support from you during the school year (e.g. an elderly relative).Note: When the FAFSA asks about the number of people in your household attending college, don’t include your parents even if they are enrolled in a program leading to a degree or a certificate.

Student researching FAFSA Questions

5. Who is the Primary Parent?

Determining who to list as the primary parent, or your parents in general, can get tricky depending on your family situation. In general, only legally adoptive or biological parents can be listed as your parents on the FAFSA. Legal guardians cannot be listed as your parents on the FAFSA, even if they claim you on their tax forms.

If your parents are divorced and you qualify as a dependent, there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  1. You must include at least one parent’s information on the form.
  2. If your parents are divorced or separated but still live together, provide both of their information.
  3. If your parents don’t live together and you need to decide whose information to provide, choose the parent that you’ve lived with the most in the last 12 months. Keep in mind that this might be different from the parent who has legal custody. If your primary parent is remarried, be sure to also include your step-parent’s information, too!
  4. If you spend an equal amount of time with both parents and receive more or less equal support from each, then you can choose which parent to include. To maximize your student aid, list the parent with the lowest income. And remember again to include your step-parent’s information if your parent is remarried.

Side note: When the FAFSA asks about your parents’ education levels, only enter information about your biological or legally adoptive parents. Stepparents don’t count for this one.

5.5 What if my parents recently divorced?

If your parents were divorced recently, that might not show up on the tax return–meaning you could run into some issues.

If your parents are now legally divorced, you can simply report the finances of one parent on your taxes. (Assuming they filed taxes jointly, this might require some math, so get a calculator!) Since the information you report will then differ from your tax forms, you’ll likely get “verified” by your college, meaning you’ll just need to provide them with additional documentation, like proof of divorce and your primary parent’s income.

If you already submitted your FAFSA and then your parents get divorced after that, don’t panic! You now have two options: You can either “Make a correction” on your FAFSA (it’s easy), or you can contact your college’s financial aid office to let them know that you are now in a single-parent household. See if they can work with you to correct it. Schools are usually willing to provide FAFSA help as long as you can give some additional information (like your parents’ W2 forms). 

6. How do I report income for my parents and myself?

The most confusing part of the FAFSA might be the income section, since there are various questions about taxed and untaxed income. However, it’s also the most important determinant of your EFC. There are a few things you should keep in mind when filling out these FAFSA questions to help you get as much aid as possible for school.

If students have a part-time job, any annual sum of money earned over $6,310 is expected to be used toward paying for college. In fact, students are expected to put 50% of their earnings towards paying for school.

When it comes to reporting income, parents should never list their 401K plan. Parents are not expected to use retirement money for college costs, and as parent age rises, your EFC decreases.

7. What about reporting assets?

Assets are things someone owns, which can include houses, cars, businesses, checking/savings accounts, and investment accounts. Deciding which assets do and don’t count can be confusing…and these FAFSA questions can also heavily impact your financial aid award. There are some assets that you’re required to report and others that, surprisingly, don’t really matter.

As a general rule, you should only report assets that are cash-based (i.e. not your car) and liquid (meaning you can easily turn them into cash). Things like trust funds and 529 savings plans (if they’re owned by you or your parent) do need to be reported, as well as more obvious things like your bank balances. This is because you could theoretically withdraw cash from them relatively easily (thus, they’re “liquid”).

Some assets that don’t need to be reported include 401K plans, small family businesses, and your parents’ home.

Additionally, the maximum contribution possible from parental assets is 5%. In other words, if you report $100K worth of assets, your contribution to paying for school would be $5K. Student assets, on the other hand, are weighed heavier. Students are expected to contribute 20% of their assets towards paying for college. Check out this list for a more detailed breakdown of which assets count and which don’t.

Side note: Try to complete the FAFSA on the day that your checking account is the lowest, like right before payday. That way, the amount that you report as your account balance will be smaller.

Side note 2: It’s best to keep college savings plans in a grandparent’s or non-custodial parent’s name so that you don’t have to list them on the FAFSA (hint: this can help maximize your award!).

Reviewing FAFSA questions

Once you’ve applied for the FAFSA, you’ll be ready to start applying for scholarships.

We understand financial aid can be a beast to tackle! That’s why at Going Merry, we’re your one-stop shop for all things scholarship-related, helping you understand topics like FAFSA questions, scholarship FAQs, and more.

Students like you can sign up for free, enter your information once, and apply for thousands of scholarships. Sign up for your free Going Merry profile today, and start winning scholarships with the best scholarship website out there!


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