10 tips for getting federal student aid

Financial aid image courtesy of RambergMediaImages. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ramberg Media Images

It's financial aid season, which means millions of families will be grappling with the FAFSA in the next few weeks.

Chances are most families are going to make mistakes when completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. These mistakes can be costly, and may even keep you from receiving the financial assistance for which you qualify.

Here are 10 tips to help you successfully complete the FAFSA:

1. Don't provide retirement assets

Families can dramatically hurt their chances for financial aid if they include assets from their 401(k) plans, Individual Retirement Accounts, 403(b) and other qualified retirement accounts on the FAFSA. The financial aid form only requires that you share non-retirement assets.

2. Don't include business assets

Parents who have a family-owned and controlled small business do not have to report the company's net worth on the FAFSA if it has fewer than 100 full-time employees.

3. Skipping deadlines

Colleges impose deadlines on families to submit their financial aid forms, and these dates can be much earlier for students applying through early decision and early action options. Find out what the deadlines are, and don't miss them.

4. File early

Although there are essentially no federal deadlines for seeking financial aid, states do impose deadlines for families who hope to qualify for financial aid through their state programs. State deadlines can be as early as February. In some states, aid is given out on a first-come, first-served basis, so it's best to file your FAFSA well ahead of the state deadline.

5. Seek help

Confused? FAFSA staffers can help. You can contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center via online chat, phone or email. Here's where to find the financial aid contact information.

6. List the most current marital status

You need to provide your marital status -- divorced, separated or married -- on the day that the FAFSA is filed. Separated and divorced parents will sometimes enjoy a financial aid advantage.

7. Have the right parent complete the FAFSA

In families of divorce, the parent who has taken care of the child during the majority of the 12 months dating from the day the FAFSA is submitted is considered the custodial parent. This can be especially advantageous in families when one ex-spouse earns significantly less than the other. Ideally, the child would live with the lower-earning parent for at least six months and a day. This parent would complete the FAFSA, and the other parent's income would not be included. If the custodial parent remarries, however, the income from the new spouse would also be included on the FAFSA.

8. Avoid blank answers

If the answer to a question is zero or not applicable, write "0" or "Not Applicable" on the online form. Leaving blank answers can cause miscalculations.

9. Pay attention to graduation rates

When you complete the FAFSA and designate that the application be sent to specific schools, the FAFSA website will provide you with the graduation rates of each school on your list. Try to avoid schools with low graduation rates.

10. Don't inflate your education

Plenty of schools will give applicants brownie points if they are considered first-generation college students. If parents didn't graduate from college, select "high school" as the highest education attainment.

Bottom Line: Following these tips can help you increase your financial aid award, and every dollar counts.

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