By Megan Shuffleton
College is expensive (as you’ve probably been told!), so of course financial aid is important. There are several types of aid you can apply for (like grants, loans and scholarships), which may seem intimidating and complicated. Believe us, though; it’s worth it!
Dealing with financial documents isn’t everyone’s forte, especially when all of those forms can be a little complicated and confusing. As a high school student, you may not be completely used to filling out government-issued paperwork that asks you for personal financial information. This means that each year, a number of students will end up making mistakes and end up missing out on certain financial aid opportunities.
Luckily for you, we have some advice for the financial aid process and how to avoid common mistakes. Here are a few errors you should do your best to avoid when applying for financial aid!
1. Missing deadlines
This mistake may seem obvious, but it’s extremely important, not to mention much easier to avoid than you’d think! The FAFSA, among many other financial aid forms, requires a lot of fiscal information from various people within your family, so it can be easy to accidentally leave a portion of the form to the last minute and have it end up being something that a parent needs to fill out.
Even worse, your parents may think they need to do something before filling out the form, but in reality it’s something that can wait. For example, a common mistake is missing deadlines because a parent hasn’t yet filed a tax return. “Students should not wait until tax returns are filed to submit a FAFSA,” says Audren Morris-Sandoval, manager of compliance and processing at UCLA’s financial aid office. “The FAFSA allows the student to provide estimated tax information and later make necessary corrections.”
Deadlines are also important because there might be extra requirements even after you turn your forms in. For example, some colleges require you to fill out more financial information after you’ve turned in your government-issued forms (like the CSS Profile). The later you turn these forms in, the more of a bind you may find yourself in!
You should know when paperwork is due and what extra actions they might require in advance so you don’t miss important deadlines. Before you even begin filling out your various forms, map out the deadlines. Visit the websites for each form requirement and find out when your application will be due. Writing these dates out on a calendar will help you visualize when you’ll need to finish the forms and send them in!
2. Entering incorrect numerical information
Again, this might seem simple, but if you mess up inputting certain dates, numbers and names, it can really have an impact on your application process. For example, entering an incorrect social security number for either you or your parent on the FAFSA can create a bigger problem than you may think.
“This can cause significant delays in processing financial aid,” says Chandra Owen, training coordinator for the Office of Financial Aid at Michigan State University. “The financial aid office will need to collect a copy of the student’s information to correct it before going any further in the process.”
While the FAFSA does have a period of time in which information on the documents can be changed and updated, making a mistake on an important piece of information like a social security number can’t be taken care of so easily.
3. Not paying attention to how much you’re borrowing
There’s an annual loan limit for federal loans as well as a lifetime limit that students can borrow. For a dependent undergraduate student, the lifetime limit (both subsidized and unsubsidized) is $31,000, and for an independent, it’s $57,000. For both students, no more than $23,000 of that amount may be in subsidized loans. Because there’s a cutoff, it’s important not to get too financial-aid-happy and start applying for more aid than you’re allowed.
“Many students do not track their borrowing and some reach their maximum before completing their degree,” Owen says. That can cause delays later in their college careers.
Not only should you keep track of how much you’re borrowing for your own personal knowledge, but it’s also information that your college needs as well. “Additionally, students sometimes fail to inform the financial aid of outside scholarships or other education-related resources, and as a result, may end up being over-awarded,” says Morris-Sandoval. The student is then required to repay a portion of the aid that they received.
There are a number of factors to be aware of in order to avoid this mistake. “Budgeting each year, reducing spending on non-essentials and visiting the NSLDS Student Access Site to view how much money has already been borrowed is highly recommended to assist in planning and making positive choices,” Owen says. And, as Morris-Sandoval recommended, you should be aware of what aid you’re receiving from different sources and take action to report it to your school’s financial aid office.