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FAFSA Completion Help
The best way to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is early, online and without any mistakes. If you're looking for a quick and easy review, check out the 7 Easy Steps to the FAFSA and IRS Data Retrieval video tutorials!
Many states and colleges use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for non-federal student aid funds that may have early deadlines or limited funding. Completing your FAFSA early could can help maximize your financial aid eligibility.
It is recommended that students complete their FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1 each year - this can be done by estimating tax information. Students and parents can provide a best estimate by using data from the previous tax year or from their W-2 forms, but remember - you'll need to correct these figures on the form later by going to the corrections page on the FAFSA website.
It will be better for most students to complete their FAFSA with estimated information than to wait until taxes have been filed - plus, the earlier you start the financial aid process, the sooner you can start preparing for the upcoming school year!
If you apply online, your application will be processed faster and will likely be more accurate because the FAFSA website is designed to catch common errors. The Department of Education also provides a Pre‐Application Worksheet that will help you collect and proofread the information for your application before you submit it. When completing your application online, you can save and continue the FAFSA at any time and then sign your application electronically using a personal identification number (PIN) which you can get from the Federal Student Aid PIN website.
Avoid Common Errors
Making mistakes on your FAFSA could delay your application and possibly make you lose out on some financial aid. Be sure to read all of the questions on the FAFSA application carefully to avoid confusion and submission of incorrect information. The most common errors made by students and families are:
- 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 an incorrect Social Security Number or drivers license number: Double check these entries and have someone else check them too. Triple check to be sure. If your parents do not have Social Security Numbers, list 000‐00‐0000. Do not make up a number or include a Taxpayer Identification Number.
- Failing to use your legal name: Your name must be listed on your FAFSA as it appears on your Social Security card. Entering nicknames or other variations on your name will cause processing delays.
- Entering the wrong address: Do not list a temporary campus or summer address as your permanent address.
- Entering the wrong federal income tax paid amount: Most filers can transfer tax information directly to the FAFSA from the IRS using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (available when completing FAFSA on the Web), which helps eliminate errors when reporting tax information. If you are not able to use the Retrieval Tool, you can find your federal income tax paid amount from your income tax return forms, not your W‐2 form(s). If you have not yet filed your taxes, you can estimate your financial information using previous tax years and correct the amounts on the form later by going to the corrections page on the FAFSA website.
- Listing Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) as equal to total income from working: AGI and total income from working are not necessarily the same. In most cases, the AGI is larger than the total income from working.
- Incorrectly filing income taxes as head of household: If there is an error in the head of household filing status, the school will require an amended tax return to be filed with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) before disbursement of aid is allowed.
- Listing marital status incorrectly: On the question pertaining to marital status, only answer “yes” if you're currently married or separated. The Department of Education wants to know what your marital status is on the day you sign the FAFSA. Midyear changes to a student’s marital status are not accepted.
- Listing parent marital status incorrectly: The custodial parent's marital status is needed. If this parent has remarried, you'll need the stepparent's information too.
- Failure to report unborn children: If you have a child that will be born before or during the award year for which you are applying, and that child will receive more than half of its support from you, you must count that child as a member of the household.
- Failing to count yourself as a student: The student completing the FAFSA must count himself or herself as a member of the household attending college during the award year.
- Failing to register with Selective Service: If you are a male, aged 18 to 26, you must register with Selective Service. Failure to do so will make you ineligible for federal student 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 (Western Illinois University code- 001780).
- Forgetting to sign and date: If you're filling out the paper FAFSA, be sure to sign it. If you're filing electronically using FAFSA on the Web, be sure to obtain your PIN. Your PIN is your electronic signature and will always be assigned to you only. Conversely, if you file using FAFSA on the Web, you can print out the signature page, sign it, and send it in.
- Sending in a copy of your income tax returns: You will be contacted by your school if your information needs verification. You do not need to send a copy of your tax returns in with your FAFSA. Any information sent with your FAFSA will be destroyed. In addition, do not write any notes in the margins of your FAFSA.
Common Errors When Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT)
- Using the IRS DRT too soon: Your tax processing may not be finished by the IRS. Guidelines provided suggest waiting 2 weeks for electronic forms and 8 weeks for mailed forms.
- Providing a non-matching address: The address must be entered exactly as shown on the tax return. For example, typing "Main Street" instead of "Main St." can result in a "no match" rejection if the tax return has the abbreviation. If your address is not acknowledged try using the format from www.usps.com.
- Providing a non-matching name:The Data Retrieval Tool will pick up the name of whoever is on the FAFSA. Make sure your FAFSA lists your name exactly as it was listed on your tax return, including a middle initial if necessary. You may need to use your full name (Christopher) or shortened name (Chris) depending on how you applied for your PIN and filed your taxes.
- Providing a non-matching parent PIN: When the DRT option is selected, the FAFSA asks for a parent PIN. The Parent PIN you provide is the parent name that will be searched through the IRS DRT. If you want to use the other parent, you will need to return to the FAFSA website and provide that parent’s PIN. You can perform a search for either parent by knowing who is listed first on the tax form, and who is listed second.
What You’ll Need to Complete the FAFSA?
- Your Social Security Number (can be found on Social Security card)
- Your driver's license (if any)
- Your W‐2 Forms and other records of money earned. Your (and your spouse's, if you are married) most recent Federal Income Tax Return – IRS Form 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, 1040Telefile, foreign tax return, or tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia.
- Records of child support paid (if applicable)
- Records of taxable earnings from federal work‐study or other need‐based work programs
- Records of any grants, scholarships, and fellowship aid that was included in your or your parents’ adjusted gross income (AGI)
- Your parent's Federal Income Tax Return (if you are a dependent student as defined by federal criteria).
- Your current bank statements.
- Your current business and investment mortgage information, business and farm records, stock, bond, and other investment records.
- Documentation that you are a U.S. permanent resident or other eligible noncitizen.
Check the Help section of the FAFSA website or call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1‐800‐4‐FED AID (1‐800‐433‐3243). The Department of Education also has Frequently Asked Questions which can assist you during your application process. Look for a free FAFSA event in your area to get professional assistance filling out the FAFSA. Financial aid administrators across the country participate in these free FAFSA events to help students and families fill out the form accurately.