Starting October 1, families can file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (aka, FAFSA) for the 2020-2021 academic year. Yes, for next fall. And if you want to get more money for college, it helps to get the form in early.
The FAFSA matters so much because colleges and federal and state governments review it to figure out how much financial aid you can get. It informs their decisions about need-based grants and, often, merit scholarships. You'll also need to fill it out to apply for federal student loans.
Don't make the mistake of waiting too long: It's important to get the form in as soon as you can.
"We've always said that, the sooner you can file, the better," says T. Eric Reich, a certified financial planner and president of Reich Asset Management in Marmora, New Jersey. "That's when the school has the most money — at the beginning."
States and colleges set their own aid deadlines, often within months of when the FAFSA form becomes available — and it's not unusual to see them dole out aid on a first-come, first-served basis.
"If you wait, you may miss out," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research for SavingForCollege.com. "Students who file the FAFSA within the first three months tend to get twice as many grants, on average, as students who file later."
The bottom line, he says: "There will be less money available for students who file in December than those who file in October."
Expect to spend about an hour gathering key forms and getting ready to file, and then another 30-60 minutes actually filling out the form, Kantrowitz says.
Don't try to fill out the FAFSA without that advance legwork, Reich says. "That's when I find people tend to make the most mistakes," like providing incorrect numbers or putting a detail on the wrong line, he says. "They're trying to compile way too much information in real time."
On the other hand, he says, "if you have everything ahead of time, you're not scrambling as much."
Here's how to prepare so you're ready to file the FAFSA early:
Your payoff for those two hours of effort preparing for and filing the FAFSA can be substantial. One 2017 study estimated that students who don't file the FAFSA are missing out on almost $10,000 each year in aid, including roughly $2,300 that doesn't need to be repaid.
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