Friday isn't just the first day of the new year — it's also the first day students can file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, for 2016-17. The FAFSA is used to distribute $150 billion to people enrolled or enrolling in college, so you don't want to miss out.
The FAFSA may seem impossible to complete, especially when you've got a confused parent peering over your shoulder. But changes in the process this year are aimed at making it easier, and we're here to help, too. Below are tips for getting the most out of your application.
Submit it ASAP. The government wants to give you money, but you have a deadline. Student aid is given out on a first-come, first-served basis, so the Department of Education recommends you complete the FAFSA as soon as possible. It takes an average of 55 minutes.
If you can't, at least know your other deadlines. The overall FAFSA deadline for students hoping to receive aid for the 2016-17 school year is June 30, 2017. But you shouldn't wait that long. States and colleges have their own deadlines that vary widely.
Here are the published FAFSA deadlines by state. All dates are in 2016 unless otherwise noted:
- Arkansas: June 1
- California: March 2
- Connecticut: Feb. 15
- Delaware: April 15
- Florida: May 15
- Indiana: March 10
- Iowa: July 1
- Kansas: April 1
- Louisiana: July 1, 2017
- Maine: May 1
- Maryland: March 1
- Massachusetts: May 1
- Michigan: March 1
- Missouri: April 1
- Montana: March 1
- New York: June 30, 2017
- North Dakota: April 15
- Ohio: Oct. 1
- Oklahoma: March 1
- Rhode Island: March 1
- Texas: March 15
If your state doesn't appear here, contact your school's financial aid office for information.
Get ready. This year's FAFSA is based around the new FSA ID rather than the Federal Student Aid PIN, like before. If you've filled out the FAFSA previously, you can link the two to carry over data within the Department of Education's system. Do this before you sit down to fill out the FAFSA to save time.
You should also have at hand the documents you'll need. EducationQuest has a checklist that includes W-2 forms, Social Security number and bank account balances.
Be careful. The FAFSA is not the place to slack off. Forbes recommends making sure you know your dependent and parental status before starting. Edvisors notes there are actually two forms of the FAFSA available — one for the academic year between 2015-16 and one for 2016-17. Click wisely.
Don't wait until tax season. Although the FAFSA requires information from families' tax returns, it's not necessary to delay the process until April. Just use estimated financial information based on the paperwork you turned in last year, according to the New York Times. Once you do your taxes, come back to the FAFSA and update with the actual numbers.
As an aside, this is the last year this should be a problem. Starting with the 2017-18 FAFSA, applications will open on Oct. 1, not Jan. 1. Students can also use prior-year data as opposed to guessing.
Ask for help. If you don't understand something, consult an expert at your school or online. In general, you shouldn't have to pay to get help with the FAFSA. At the DOE's help center, you can instant message, email or call a student aid agent. EducationQuest has a dedicated FAFSA tutorial site, and Edvisors has a book dedicated to it.