Most Common FAFSA Application Errors to Avoid

Abigail Eun
Abigail Eun

Abigail Eun is a freelance writer and personal finance expert. Through diligent research and continuous learning, she has honed her knowledge in budgeting, saving, investing, and debt management. Abigail is passionate about helping people get their finances in order. She believes that everyone should have access to the information they need to make sound financial decisions. Her goal is to provide clear and concise information that is easy to understand.

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Emma Östlund
Emma Östlund

Emma Östlund works as a business operations analyst at Sparrow. Emma studied Psychology, Computer Science, and Markets & Management at Duke University. With a well-rounded background in business and analytics, Emma strives to deliver data-driven conclusions and insights.

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Camden Ford
Camden Ford

Camden leads Sparrow’s business operations – everything from product management to business analytics. After graduating Cum Laude from Duke University where he studied Civil Engineering, Camden worked as a Consultant for A.T. Kearney where he worked in their Strategic Operations practice. With a strong background in analytics, Camden strives to deliver data-driven conclusions and insights.

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June 22, 2023

Filing the FAFSA application (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the first step to receiving federal financial aid. Though it may seem like a daunting task, all it takes is a little bit of preparation, time, and focus.

To save yourself from making any FAFSA errors, here are the most common mistakes that are made when filling out the FAFSA application.

What is the Most Common Mistake Made on the FAFSA?

#1: Not Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT)

The FAFSA offers a convenient tool called the IRS Data Retrieval Tool that fills out all your tax information to your FAFSA so you don’t have to. It’s a quick and convenient way to save you time and avoid making any errors on the application. Take advantage of it!

#2: Not Reading the Directions Carefully

Some of the terminology on the FAFSA application can’t be taken at face value. The application has very specific definitions for the following words that you should be aware of.

  • Household size: Your family’s household size consists of: 1) Yourself; 2) Your parents; 3) Your parents’ children who receive more than half of their support; 4) Individuals who live with your parents and receive more than half of their support.
  • Number of family members in college: Enter the number of individuals who will be attending college for at least half-time during the same time as you (including yourself). Do not count your parents even if they are attending college.
  • Net worth of investments: The net worth of your parents’ investments is found by subtracting the debt amount from the investment’s value.
  • Taxable college scholarships and grants: When the FAFSA asks for the total amount of taxable college scholarships and grants, report any scholarship and grant amounts that are reported to the IRS as income. Use the amount reported on your tax return.

#3: Mistaking Dependency and/or Marital Status

Complex family dynamics can make completing the FAFSA a bit tricky. If your parents’ marital status is ambiguous, use the following chart provided by the Federal Student Aid (FSA) office as a guide. 

Source: FAFSA

If your dependency status is unclear as well, you’ll want to double-check that you are putting down the right information. Even if you fully support yourself, you may be considered a dependent student by the Office of Federal Student Aid. 

To determine your dependency status, answer the following questions. 

  1. Will you be 24 or older by Jan. 1 of the school year for which you are applying for financial aid?
  2. Are you married or separated but not divorced?
  3. Will you be working toward a master’s or doctorate degree (such as M.A., MBA, M.D., J.D., Ph.D., Ed.D., etc.)?
  4. Do you have children who receive more than half of their support from you?
  5. Do you have dependents (other than children or a spouse) who live with you and receive more than half of their support from you?
  6. Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training?
  7. Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?
  8. At any time since you turned age 13, were both of your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a ward or dependent of the court?
  9. Are you an emancipated minor or are you in legal guardianship as determined by a court?
  10. Are you an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?

If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, you are considered an independent student. If you answered “no” to all of the questions, you are considered a dependent student.

>> MORE: How to fill out the FAFSA as an independent student

#4: Only Listing One College

Unless you’re already in school or know what school you will be going to, don’t list only one college on your FAFSA. Add all the colleges you are considering applying to (even if you don’t know if you will be accepted or attend).

List as many schools as you want on your FAFSA application. There is no harm in doing so. If you don’t apply or are not accepted to a school you listed on your FAFSA, the school will simply disregard your FAFSA.

You can add up to 10 schools at a time. If you want to add more schools, you can replace the ones you already have.

Note: The school(s) you remove from your list will not have automatic access to any new updates or information you add to your FAFSA after removal.

#5: Not Signing the FAFSA Form

Signing the FAFSA form is probably the easiest step of the application, but it is the most commonly forgotten. Don’t let this happen to you. You will need to know your FSA ID and password (as well as your parent’s FSA ID and password) to sign.

Other FAFSA Application Errors to Avoid

Forgetting Account Information

You will want to keep your FSA ID and password in a safe place that you will be able to access. You’ll need it for every important step, whether it be starting a new application or submitting your finalized one. 

You must use your legal name, or the name written on your government documents, when filling out the FAFSA application. Nicknames or other versions of your name are not allowed.

If you used the wrong name for your application, you should submit a name change for your Student Aid Report (SAR) and contact your school’s financial aid office.

Leaving Answers Blank

Having too many blank spaces on your application can result in a rejected application or a miscalculation. Instead, experts recommend putting “0” or “Not applicable” in spaces that you cannot fill out. 

If you use the IRS DRT, know that the tool will not fill out the entire application for you. You will still have to fill out items like “Payments to tax-deferred pension and retirement savings plans”, which are not automatically filled out by the DRT.

Before submitting, be sure to double-check that all required information is provided and that all of your answers are accurate.

Not Ranking Your Schools Properly (State Schools Only)

Some states require you to rank a state school within your top three choices to be considered for state grants. You may not receive a state grant because you did not rank a state school you are considering “high enough” on your FAFSA. 

If you’re unsure about your state’s grant requirement, rank your top choice for state schools first on your FAFSA application.

Not Filling out the Special Circumstances Section

If you had any special circumstances that impacted your family’s income, report it. Colleges offer a form you can fill out to report any special circumstances, which may help you receive more financial aid.

What Happens if There is an Error on the FAFSA?

Thankfully, it won’t be the end of the world if you make an error or two on your FAFSA application. Here are some steps you can take to remedy the mistake.

Step 1: Contact Your School’s Financial Aid Office

Reach out to your school’s financial aid office (or all the financial aid offices of the schools you’ve applied to) to alert them about the mistake. It’s probably not the first time that the office has dealt with FAFSA issues, so you’ll be in good hands.

Step 2: Make FAFSA Corrections

You can make direct changes to your FAFSA by logging into your account online. Select the option, “Make FAFSA Corrections” on the MY FAFSA page and adjust accordingly. 

Step 3 (Optional): File An Appeal

You should only file an appeal for the FAFSA if you feel that your household financial situation is not reflected accurately. Individuals usually appeal the FAFSA if they feel as though they haven’t received enough financial aid or faced a drastic change in their financial situation since submitting the form. 

You will need substantial evidence to prove that your FAFSA does not reflect your current finances. Reasons to appeal the FAFSA include: 

  • Divorce
  • Serious illness
  • Death
  • Sudden layoff

>> MORE: How to write a FAFSA appeal letter

Closing Thoughts From the Nest

While filling out the FAFSA may seem tedious, filling out the form carefully and as early as possible is key to maximizing federal financial aid. To avoid any FAFSA errors, read the directions carefully and ask for help when you need it.

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