6 Secrets to Filling Out the FAFSA (and Mistakes to Avoid!)

Dean Tsouvalas, past Editor-in-Chief of ScholarshipAdvisor.com, participated in a lively webinar with Wow Writing Workshop, where he shared his insights into the world of financial aid. Read his guest blog below. If you are already a member of wowwritingworkshop.com, you can check out the recording here. Not a member yet? Join free today!

By Dean Tsouvalas
The Academy of Penguin Hall, Vice President of Enrollment Management

fafsaNow that the majority of college and university application deadlines have passed, it’s time to start applying for financial aid to help fund higher education. Filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the only way one can get a financial aid package.

Even if you don’t think you are qualified, you must fill out the FAFSA to receive aid. Follow these simple tips to avoid some of the most common FAFSA mistakes and get the best financial aid package for college:

1. Fill out the FAFSA even if you don’t think you will qualify.

We found it shocking that one study showed that 53% of eligible families did not bother applying for aid through the FAFSA, leaving millions on the table. Colleges use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for government funded financial aid such as grants and federal student loans. Schools will also determine if you qualify for need-based scholarships based on your FAFSA score. You can do it all online at FAFSA.gov.

2. Before you hit the send button, take time and proofread the FAFSA three times to avoid these common mistakes:

  • Listing incorrect Social Security Number or Driver’s license numbers.
  • Leaving blank fields. Enter a ‘0′ or ‘not applicable’ instead of leaving a blank. Too many blanks may cause miscalculations and an application rejection.
  • Using commas or decimal points in numeric fields. Always round to the nearest dollar.
  • Listing marital status incorrectly. Only write yes if you are currently married. They want to know what your marital status is on the day you sign the FAFSA or Renewal FAFSA.
  • Listing parent marital status incorrectly. The custodial parent’s marital status is required; if Mom or Dad has remarried, you’ll need the stepparent’s information too.
  • Leaving the question about drug-related offenses blank. If you’re unsure about something, find out before you submit your FAFSA, instead of leaving it blank. A conviction doesn’t necessarily disqualify you from getting aid.
  • Forgetting to list the college. Obtain the Federal School Code for the college you plan on attending and list it, along with any other schools to which you’ve applied.
  • Forgetting to sign and date. If you’re filling out the paper FAFSA, be sure to sign it. If you’re filing electronically, be sure to obtain your Federal Student Aid PIN from www.pin.ed.gov. Your PIN is your electronic signature and a unique one will be assigned to you.

3. A student should always file a tax return, even if he or she is not making any money.

A tax return that says $0 can actually work in a student’s favor, as it demonstrates a need.

4. Grades have little to do with financial aid awards.

It is inaccurate to assume a child must have good grades to qualify for grants and scholarships. Most colleges award a majority of their grants based on financial need, not merit. Merit scholarships comprise less than 2% of the total pot. Although it’s fun to talk about merit scholarships, the big money – more than 98% – is in the need-based financial aid system.

5. Don’t wait on acceptance letters before applying for financial aid.

Financial aid is available on a first come, first served basis. You don’t need to be accepted to a college before you can submit your FAFSA; you only need to list which schools you have applied to. Typically, for first year students, colleges mail their financial aid reward statuses to students a few months after the application deadline to accepted students.

6. Compare financial aid packages from different schools carefully.

Do not be afraid to read between the lines on financial aid reward letters. It’s not uncommon for expensive private colleges to offer better financial aid packages than state schools. Examine the gap (if there is one) between the financial aid package and the cost of attendance for each school to see how well the package meets your need. Break down how much money is coming from grants, federal loans, scholarships, and work-study. Grants and scholarships don’t have to be paid back. Work-study money must be earned through part time employment during the school year and students must pay taxes on it. Loans need to be paid back and different families can take on different amounts of debt. Remember – federal loans are less expensive and have more benefits than private loans.


You must fill out a FAFSA every year you are in school, but if you apply online, you can re-use your Federal Student Aid PIN each year you apply for federal financial aid.

Make sure you fill out the FAFSA every year for every child you have in college, starting in January of their senior year in high school to ensure you have a chance at receiving the most financial aid possible.

Want more tips on how to pay for college? Join Wow Writing Workshop and watch our exclusive webinar, Get Ready! Get Set! Get In! Paying for College Without Going Broke, featuring guest blogger Dean Tsouvalas, Editor-in-Chief of ScholarshipAdvisor.com, and Jennifer Ramsey Wallace, Outreach Manager for Financial Aid Programs for the State of Michigan.

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Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Perceptive, resourceful and curious, Kim can get a story out of anyone. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager. With Susan Knoppow, Wow’s CEO, Kim developed the Wow Method by combining her journalistic training with Susan’s organization and instructional design skills. She holds a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines and online publications. Kim and Susan have co-authored three books – How to Write an Effective College Application Essay (The Inside Scoop for Parents, Students, Counselors). They are members/affiliates of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling (MACAC), the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
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