College  |  October 18, 2019  |  Reyna Gobel

The 7 most costly FAFSA mistakes

What you'll learn
  • Common FAFSA mistakes
  • How to take advantage of federal student aid

Every year families nervously await and often postpone filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Some skip the ordeal entirely because they think it’s a waste of time and only a fast track to federal student loans. However, the FAFSA package also includes college scholarships and grants. Not filling it out is one of many costly FAFSA mistakes and can result in families losing money that could have helped them pay for college.

Here are the 7 costliest FAFSA mistakes:

1. Not filling out 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 FAFSA takes into account.

You can use net price calculators on college websites to guesstimate what you might qualify for financially, but the only way to know is to fill out the FAFSA. Calculators are based on last year’s award amounts and can vary up or down annually.


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

It was just a couple of years ago that the FAFSA form asked for your current year’s tax data. Now, you can submit data from a past year’s tax return that’s easily accessible via IRS.gov or the IRS data retrieval tool within the form. For the FAFSA for academic year 2020-2021, you can actually use your 2018 return. The retrieval tool will auto populate your tax information into your digital 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 just 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 so make sure you consider financial changes to avoid FAFSA mistakes that can affect your aid amount.

4. Thinking there’s an age limit for 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.

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

If you haven’t already, 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 change 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

A more common FAFSA mistake than you might think, but you should not be paying to file the FAFSA. Filing is free. A paid service will not get you more aid. But high schools, local colleges, and financial aid offices have the resources to help you fill out the form properly. There are also other free sources that can guide you.

7. Not filling it out early enough

Procrastination doesn’t pay off, not filling out the form early on is one of the most avoidable FAFSA mistakes. Fill it out as close to October 1 as possible for every upcoming 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 qualify for federal loans and potentially save thousands of dollars for college through grants and scholarships. Fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible.


Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Sallie Mae makes no claims about the accuracy or adequacy of this information. These materials may not reflect Sallie Mae’s view or endorsement. Consult your own attorney or tax advisor about your specific circumstances. Reproduction without explicit permission is prohibited.