The CSS Profile vs. the FAFSA & EFC – What’s the difference?

You’re ready to start planning in paying college tuition. But why are there two financial aid forms: the FAFSA and the CSS Profile? How do you prioritize which to fill out? What’s the process? We’re breaking down the differences between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile, from applications to deadlines, and everything in between.

Give me the overview.

What are they?

Think of the FAFSA as the head honcho of federal financial aid. Students need to start with the FAFSA application to determine how much government financial aid they’re eligible for, and to submit applications for scholarships, loans, grants, and other forms of financial aid. Students will then be awarded money to be used toward college rooming and board, textbooks, and class credits, funded by the federal government. Some universities also provide their own financial aid based on your FAFSA.

You can also fill out an “early” version of your FAFSA, well ahead of your high school senior year, just to get an estimate of how much aid you and your family will receive. To do that, check out the FAFSA4Caster.

The CSS Profile, on the other hand, is used for awarding non-federal financial aid. About 400 colleges and scholarship programs use this CSS Profile application to determine their financial aid packages.

Do some schools use both FAFSA and the CSS Profile to determine aid? 

Yes, a list of 400 schools require both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile to be completed. Check out this list to confirm if your school requires both the FAFSA and CSS Profile.

Hint: Four public universities require the CSS Profile (University of Virginia, University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the College of William and Mary). The rest of the schools that use the CSS Profile are private colleges.

CSS Profile

Which one should I fill out?

Fill out the FAFSA no matter what – this will open up the door to a large number of scholarships, grants, loans, and other forms of federal financial aid (including Going Merry scholarships!).

Once you’ve filled out the FAFSA, check if the colleges you’re applying to require the CSS Profile. If the colleges do require the profile, then fill it out. If not, discuss this with your guidance counselor to see if it would be beneficial for you to fill it out.

You can also call your ideal colleges’ financial aid offices to get advice on whether you should use the CSS Profile or not. Make sure you’re maximizing your financial aid opportunities!

FAFSA vs. CSS Profile – What’s the difference?

Who’s in charge?


The FAFSA is a government form. The federal government awards federal financial aid based on your FAFSA application. 

CSS Profile

The CSS Profile is administered by the College Board, a nonprofit organization in charge of the SAT, PSAT, AP studies, and College Planning. Many colleges and universities use your CSS Profile to determine what kind of (non-federal) financial aid you should get.

Student savings for college tuition

What’s the cost?


The FAFSA is free. There’s no fee to apply for the FAFSA and submit your application.

CSS Profile 

There is an initial College Board CSS Profile fee of $25 to submit your application to one school, plus $16 for each additional school report, paid by credit or debit card. CSS Profile application fees may be waived if first-time domestic college applicants qualify as:

  • Low-income
  • Qualified for an SAT fee waiver
  • Orphan or a ward of the court, under 24 years of age or based on parental income and family size

What’s the application process like?


You’ll create an FSA ID (Federal Student Aid ID), a username, and a password that will serve as your legal signature. You’ll then answer a series of questions, such as your student information, what major you’re pursuing, your financial information, and your parents’ education levels.

CSS Profile

You’ll create a username and password to log in to your College Board account. You might be able to use the same account if you already created one for the SAT or for viewing your PSAT or AP scores.

You’ll answer a set of customized questions, differing per student and tailored to your family’s income situation. Then you’ll submit your application.

Student reading a book

What are the application questions?


All students will receive the same questions on their application, including:

  • Name, address, social security number, and date of birth
  • Driver’s license number (if applicable) and state ID
  • Email address
  • Citizenship and immigration status
  • Marital status
  • Your parent’s/parents’ level of education
  • Legal residence
  • Your education details
  • Your grade level
  • Degree or certificate you’re pursuing
  • Your financial information
  • Your student status
  • Work study program
  • Your household information

CSS Profile

Each student will receive a set of customized questions, depending on their registration answers. For example, Colleges will also add institutional questions to request further information to understand your financial need. Although the institutional questions are optional, it’s recommended that you fill out every question.

Is there a list of info/questions I should prep the answers to (e.g. go over with my parents), so that I’m ready to fill out the questions?

Check with your parent(s) on their level of education. This will be a question on both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. Also review your financial information, such as your employment status (if you worked in high school / are working in college), tax returns, tax forms, income information, W-2 forms, and expenses.

If you need help, see if your parent(s) will be available to help fill out all the information to complete the form(s) in one sitting.

Students on computers

What are the deadlines?

The CSS Profile form is open for submission beginning October 1 of the year prior to a student’s college enrollment. (For example, if you start college in Fall 2024, you can begin applying from October 1, 2023.) The FAFSA usually opens on October 1st, but this year, the form opens in December 2023.

FAFSA Deadlines

Submit your FAFSA by your specific FAFSA state deadline, to be considered for federal government financial aid. Some colleges may have even earlier deadlines, so check your target colleges’ financial aid websites. Or just be safe rather than sorry, by applying on or as close as possible to the December 2023 opening date.

CSS Profile Deadlines

It is recommended that you complete your CSS Profile no later than two weeks before your college’s earliest priority application date.

So, if your college’s early action date is November 20, regular priority date is December 20, and final / late priority date is January 20, you should complete your CSS Profile by two weeks before the first date – in other words, by November 6. Most deadlines fall between November 1st and January 31st, so keep an eye out and mark your calendars!

So I know I have to calculate my EFC for FAFSA. Is there something similar for the CSS Profile? 

The EFC is the Expected Family Contribution, which helps colleges calculate your financial needs for the school year. Colleges will subtract your EFC from the Cost of Attendance to determine your financial need.

On the other hand, the College Board decides what formula to use for the CSS Profile, and this may change on an annual basis. For example, some colleges may consider factors such as family home or other assessed items of value. 

For the CSS Profile, can I add colleges later?

Yes! You can add colleges to the CSS Profile at any time in your CSS Profile dashboard. Keep in mind, this will cost $16 for each college added to your report.

Happy student

Ready to apply to the FAFSA and/or the CSS Profile?

Once you’ve filled out your forms, you’re on the road to maximizing your college financial aid opportunities! But sometimes federal aid and college financial aid packages aren’t quite enough. If you’ve got a gap to fill, independent scholarships may be just the ticket.

Sign up for your free profile on Going Merry to search and apply for thousands of independent scholarships within minutes!

Kelly Lamano

Ready to find scholarships that are a match for you?