Every year, college students all over the country complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. The FAFSA determines these students’ eligibility for federal loans, grants, and work-study as well as financial aid at their colleges and universities of choice.
The FAFSA becomes available on October 1st each year. After you submit it, 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 in the same way as the FAFSA to determine how much financial support a student needs.
For more information on filling out the FAFSA, check out our step-by-step guide.
How to Approach the Trickiest FAFSA Questions
While a lot of the questions on the FAFSA are quick to answer, there are a few tricky ones that can leave students puzzled. There are others too that seem easy but you need to be careful when you answer as small mistakes can have a significant impact on the amount of financial aid you receive.
Here are the 7 trickiest FAFSA questions and our best advice on how to approach them:
1. Your Name & SSN
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.
2. Your Legal Status
It’s worth mentioning that 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 financial aid. Essentially all U.S. citizens are eligible for financial aid as well as green card holders, conditional permanent residents, any person with a legal status stating “asylum granted”, “refugee”, “indefinite parole”, “humanitarian parole”, or “Cuban-Haitian Entrant”. Lastly, citizens of the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated State of Micronesia are considered eligible non-citizens.
DACA students are not eligible for federal student aid, but they are eligible to receive financial aid packages from many schools and sometimes from States too. Therefore, it’s still worth filling out the FAFSA if they have a social security number.
3. A Note About Selective Service…
All men in the U.S. are required to register for the Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthday (either before or after). After that period, they have up until their 26th birthday to file a late enrollment. Women are exempt.
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. Students who don’t enroll by their 26th birthday are ineligible to receive student aid from the government. Some state laws also prevent students from receiving school-based aid if they select “no” to Selective Service on the FAFSA.
4. The Size of Your Household
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) financially support.
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.
- Start with your parents and yourself.
- 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.
- Then add any other people who live with your parents, 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).
- Start with yourself and your spouse (if married).
- 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.
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 don’t count 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:
- You must include at least one parent’s information on the form.
- If your parents are divorced or separated but still live together, provide both of their information.
- 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!
- 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. Step-parents don’t count for this one.
5.5 A Note About Recent Divorces…
If your parents were divorced recently, it won’t show up on their most recent tax return–meaning you could run into some issues. To fix this, contact the financial aid offices at the colleges or universities that you’re applying to and 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. Reporting Income for Parents and Students
The most confusing part of the FAFSA is 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 saving and paying for school.
When it comes to reporting income, parents should never list their 401K plan. Parents are never expected to use retirement money for college costs and as parent age rises, EFC decreases. Additionally, most social security runs out when a student hits 18, so you’re not expected to use any of that.
7. And What About Assets?
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 liquid and cash-based. 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.
Some assets that don’t need to be reported include 401K plans, small family businesses, and your parent’s home. Retirement assets are never included when calculating EFC. 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 (i.e. to maximize your award!).
*While the CSS Profile and the FAFSA are both used to determine financial aid, they differ in a few ways.
- The CSS Profile asks questions based on the specific schools you’re applying to while the FAFSA questions are the same for everyone.
- The CSS Profile has a “Minimum Student Contribution” section while the FAFSA does not.
- The CSS Profile gives more decision-making power to financial aid officials.
- Home prices are taken into account on the CSS Profile, which can become an issue when home equity values rise.
- Lastly, the FAFSA is always free and the CSS Profile has a cost. As of 2018, the cost is $25 for the first school and $16 per additional school.
Which FAFSA questions do you find most confusing? Let us know below!