College  |  August 19, 2022  |  Reyna Gobel

How to Avoid These Common FAFSA® Mistakes  

What you'll learn
  • Common FAFSA® mistakes
  • Why it’s so important to fill out the FAFSA® every year
  • How to account for changes in income or life changes
  • How to make the most of your financial aid

Every year families nervously await and often postpone filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Some skip it entirely because they think it’s a waste of time and only a fast track to federal student loans. However, the FAFSA® package can also include college scholarships, work-study, and grants. Not filling it out—the most costly FAFSA® mistake—can result in losing money that could have helped you pay for college.

Avoid these costly FAFSA® mistakes

1. Not submitting the FAFSA® at all

Some families don’t fill out the FAFSA® because they think their income is too high to qualify. While income is considered, it’s not the only factor the application takes into account.

You can use net price calculators on college websites to estimate Expected Family Contribution and what you might qualify for financially…but the only way to know is to fill out the FAFSA® itself. Calculators are based on last year's award amounts and can vary up or down annually.

Check out this step-by-step guide to filling out the FAFSA®.

2. Waiting to fill out the FAFSA® until you file your taxes

A few years ago, the FAFSA® asked for your current year's tax return data. Now you can submit data from a past year's tax return that's easily accessible via or the IRS data retrieval tool within the form. For the FAFSA® for academic year 2022-2023, you can actually use your 2020 tax return. The retrieval tool will auto-populate your tax return information into your online form, making it easier for you to fill out your application and preventing this common FAFSA® mistake.

3. Not filling out the “special circumstances” form when financial information changes

The special circumstances form is available from college financial aid offices. You fill it out when your income changes from what’s reported on your FAFSA®. This could be due to a job loss, a medical circumstance, or a reduction in income. I filled out the form when I returned to college and quit my job. The reduction in income boosted the grants I was offered by over $1,000! Make sure you consider financial changes to avoid a common FAFSA® mistake that can affect your aid amount.

4. Thinking there’s an age limit for the FAFSA®

Federal financial aid is just as available to non-traditional students in the 24 to 35-year-old range as it is to students in their late teens and early twenties. There’s no age limit for receiving federal financial aid—so apply!

5. Waiting to list schools until you’re absolutely sure where you’re applying

If you haven't already done so, start researching schools. If you don't list any colleges on your FAFSA®, they won't know you're potentially interested in applying for grant money from them. Always list state schools first, in case they offer additional state-based aid on a priority basis.

You can change the schools on the list at almost any time if you decide to go to a different college, but you should try to update the school names ASAP. You don't want to be on the list after university grants run out for the year.

6. Paying to fill out the FAFSA®

This is a more common mistake than you might think, but you should never pay to submit the FAFSA®. Filing is free, period. A paid service will not get you more aid. Check with your high school, local college, and financial aid office for resources to help you fill out the FAFSA® properly. There are also free online resources that can guide you.

7. Not filling it out early enough

Procrastination doesn’t pay off; not filling out the FAFSA® early is one of the most avoidable financial aid mistakes. Some financial aid is first-come, first-served, so fill it out as close to October 1 as possible for every upcoming academic year that you intend to be a student. You can always make changes later.

Make the most of your federal student aid

By avoiding these common FAFSA® mistakes, you can increase your chances for federal loans and potentially save thousands of dollars for college through grants and scholarships. It’s the single most-important thing you can do to help pay for college. Make sure you fill it out and submit it as close to October 1 as possible.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

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