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Step-by-Step FAFSA SOS

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Applying to college and having to make so many choices is tedious enough without all those papers to fill out. And, when it comes to financial aid forms, it's totally confusing and overwhelming -- especially since it's something you must do with your parents.

Consider this: If you or your parents make even one tiny mistake, you may have to pay for it -- literally. Errors and omissions on financial aid forms can lead to a delay in an award package and/or response from your schools of choice.

So, what's a financially frustrated student to do? Well, beyond seeking out a college cash guardian angel (it'll never happen; stop wishing!), we've consulted three financial aid experts: St. John's University's Alana Gilkeson and Wagner College's Rosemary Anastasio and Theresa Weimer. The result? Your own step-by-step FAFSA SOS.

There are three sure things for college-bound students: death, taxes, and the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). If you wish to be considered for government and university-administered loans, grants, or scholarships (and who doesn't?), the FAFSA must be completed.

1 - "So, where can I get one?"
Bug your high school guidance counselor or financial aid officer in December of your senior year. You can also complete the form online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.

2 - The most mess-ups
According to Weimer, the most common FAFSA errors are income-related. Just watch ... when it comes to what should be considered untaxed income and earned income credit, your 'rents will get confused. To avoid the chaos, they should look to the section on their tax returns where earned income credit is included (if they were eligible for it). This money reduces the amount of taxes owed to the government and therefore needs to be recorded on the FAFSA.

If you or your parents receive Social Security income, that needs to be listed on the FAFSA as well. Sometimes it's forgotten, says Anastasio; other times, parents claim they don't know where to include it. (It's Question 93 for them and Question 45 for you.) And, it's not only the facts that cause frustration, says Gilkeson. Believe it or not, students and parents often forget to include such simple information as their signature, and even fill in an incorrect Social Security number.

"Some people don't pay attention to the form," explains Anastasio. "They just anticipate what the outcome will be."

Others even confuse their level of study. "It isn't uncommon to see undergraduate students mark off the graduate student area on the form," states Gilkeson. Her advice? Try not to analyze the form -- just fill it out, step-by-step.

3 - "Whose responsibility am I, anyway?"
Another confusing aspect of the FAFSA is the section that asks your 'rents whether or not you are their dependent.

To figure it all out, says Anastasio, think of it this way: "A dependent is described as any child under the age of 24 and a half who is supported fully by their parents."

If your parents are divorced, you need to use the income of the parent with whom you live the majority of the time -- otherwise referred to as the "custodial parent." If you live with one parent, however, and the other fully supports you, you would use the latter's income.

Here's where it gets tricky: If neither of your parents provide for you financially and you wish to be considered independent, you'll need to prove it. You will be asked for rent receipts, a list of expenses, bills, etc. This is often a difficult claim to support; the final decision is usually left to the discretion of a college's financial aid director.

4 - "Deadline, schmeadline"
The ultimate costly error is missing a deadline. By sending the form in late, you can lose valuable tuition money. The D-date for the FAFSA: Submit it after January 1 of your senior year, but before June 30 of that same year. (Play it safe and check with your choice schools -- some have a March 1 deadline.)

5 - "Uh-oh!"
Although you will be able to check the accuracy of your answers after you send in the FAFSA (they will be compiled on a Student Aid Report [SAR] within three to four weeks), be sure to review everything carefully before you mail in the FAFSA or click "Submit."

Filling Out the FAFSA, Step-By-Step:

Step One (Student)
Questions 1-32: This is the easy stuff -- your name, address, Social security number (watch it!), driver's license number, marital status, matriculation (that's whether or not you plan to study on a part- or full-time basis), the highest education completed by your parents, the degree you'll be working toward, if you're interested in work-study and loans, etc.

Step Two (Student)
Questions 33-45: These questions apply to your net worth. If you received any type of earnings and a W2 form, you must include it in this section. Also to be disclosed: any investments and pertinent exemptions. Note: If you are married, your spouse's information must be included here as well.

Step Three (Student)
Questions 46-58: All of these questions are targeted toward determining one factor: are you dependent or independent? This section asks you to answer questions such as "Were you born before a certain year, are you married, are you an orphan, are you a veteran?" If you answered "no" to all of these questions, you move on to Step Four to give your parents' information; if you answered "yes" to any question, SKIP Step Four and move on to Step 5.

Step Four (Parents)
Questions 59-93: For parents only: Here your 'rents will have to provide information from their tax returns, including adjusted gross income for the previous year, number of exemptions, net worth of business and investments, number of people in your household (including other college-age students), etc.

Step Five (Student)
Questions 94-101 are to be answered ONLY if you answered "yes" to any questions in Step Three.

Step Six (Student)
This section requires you to list which schools (up to six) you want to receive your information. You'll need the college or university's federal school code here (get it online at http://fsa4counselors.ed.gov/clcf/FedSchoolCode.html, or ask your high school guidance counselor).

Step Seven (Student and Parent)
Both you and your parents must read this disclaimer, sign, and date it ... don't forget!

For Further Help
If you still need help, call the financial aid office of your school, or check into workshops (usually held by your high school or potential colleges).

FAFSA on the Web: www.fafsa.ed.gov
Federal Student Aid Information Center: 1-800-4-FED-AID


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