The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which families fill out to apply for college scholarships and loans, became available at fafsa.ed.gov on Oct. 1 this year, three months earlier than in the past. The CSS/Financial Aid Profile, an additional form required by some 300 private colleges and scholarship providers, also changed its timeline to correspond with the FAFSA.
Within two weeks of submitting your FAFSA you should receive a report showing how much federal aid you’re likely to get. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you're filling out and submitting your application.
1. You should file earlier.
As a result of the earlier FAFSA release, a small number of colleges have moved their financial aid deadlines into November or December, ahead of their admission application deadlines. So check as soon as possible with any school you might apply to. Even if a college isn’t changing its deadline, a lot of aid is first come, first served, so you should still submit your FAFSA as early as you can, says Jodi Okun, the founder of College Financial Aid Advisors. This is especially true for cash-strapped state universities.
2. Filling in your financial info will be easier.
For students starting college in the fall of 2017, families will use 2015 income tax information. In the past, when the FAFSA came out in January, families had to supply data for the year just ended, often before they filed a tax return, then update the form later. Now you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically fill in parts of the FAFSA based on your 2015 return. If your financial situation has changed significantly since then, such as a large drop in income, you can send additional information directly to each school.
3. You needn't list everything.
In fact, it’s to your advantage to report only the types of assets and investments that the FAFSA specifically asks about. For example, don’t include your IRAs, 401(k) plans, and other retirement accounts, which are not supposed to be counted on the FAFSA,says Kalman A. Chany, a financial aid counselor and the author of Paying for College Without Going Broke. You should also omit any equity you might have in your home and the value of any small business you own that has fewer than 100 employees.
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4. You should file even if you don't expect aid.
Just submitting a FAFSA will automatically qualify you for a low-cost federal student loan of up to $5,500 for freshman year. The interest rate on undergraduate student loans is currently 3.8% plus about 1% in fees, which works out to an annual percentage rate of roughly 4.1%. The FAFSA is also required for many other kinds of aid, including work/study jobs; federal parent PLUS loans; scholarships from state agencies, private foundations, and colleges; and, in a few cases, merit aid.
For more in MONEY's Guide to FAFSA, check out: