For families with college-bound kids, there’s two things that are bound to cause loads of stress: the steep cost of college and the looming Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). There’s no doubt that college is expensive and getting financial aid can seem so very difficult. The best way to overcome this stress is to fill out the FAFSA. It may seem complicated at first, but it could lead to a financial break on those unforgiving college bills. Here are crucial tips on how to fill out the FAFSA efficiently and correctly the first time.

Leave common FAFSA myths behind.

Unfortunately, some students feel like they shouldn’t bother filling out the FAFSA because of some common myths. These include:

  • “I (or my parents) make too much money, so I won’t qualify for aid.”
  • “Only students with good grades get financial aid.”
  • “I’m too old to get financial aid.”
  • “The form is too hard to fill out.”

Don’t let one of these concerns cause you to miss out on free money.

Remember the FASFA’s purpose.

Of course, you’ll want to fill out the FAFSA to see if you qualify for any no-strings-attached federal student aid. But there are many other reasons for completing the simple online form:

  • It may make you eligible for a low interest loan.
  • Some institutional merit-based scholarships may require completion of the FAFSA.
  • If your life situation changes during the year, having the form on file can help make it easier to get back on your feet.

Fill out the FAFSA as soon and as accurately as possible.

You can complete the FAFSA any time after Oct. 1 for the following school year. Since federal money is disbursed as the applications are approved, the sooner you fill out the FAFSA, the better.

Your FAFSA needs to be accurate, so it’s best to complete it online. The online form identifies mistakes and allows you to correct them. Your financial package can be delayed by inaccuracies, which can affect the amount of your financial aid award.

Follow these steps to complete the FAFSA right the first time.

  1. Unless you already have a Federal Student Aid ID (or FSA ID), you’ll need to create an FSA ID. You should complete the FAFSA under the student’s FSA ID. Questions are geared toward the student.
  2. When completing the FAFSA, be sure to choose the tab that corresponds with the academic year of which you are seeking aid.
  3. The FAFSA encourages people to use the IRS Retrieval tool. This allows FAFSA to pull tax information directly from the IRS, making it relatively easy to complete. You can opt to complete the form manually; however, entering the information manually will increase the chances of making a mistake and being audited.
  4. On the list of colleges, be sure to include all the colleges to which the student may apply for admission. You can list up to ten colleges. The student can add another college to the list later.
  5. Both parent and student must electronically sign the application. Both will need to log in using the FSA ID.

For multiple-student families, start with the oldest student.

For families that have multiple students applying for financial aid, be sure to complete the oldest student’s application first. After the first student’s application is complete, you’ll see the option to “add a student.” This will save you from completing all the information a second time.

Be informed about the SARS.

After completing and signing the FAFSA, applicants will receive a Student Aid Report Summary (SARS). The SARS is a tool that colleges use to evaluate prospective students’ needs for financial aid. Colleges put together financial aid packages based upon the SARS.

If applying for private colleges, you may have more forms to fill out.

Applying to a private college? Check to find out whether they require the CSS/Profile and/or their own institutional forms. If so, complete those forms immediately. Colleges start accepting these forms in the fall. Federal funds are dispensed by a strict formula, but private institutions can decide their own formula for how they will distribute their funds. Each college will use the institutional method as they see fit, so financial aid packages can differ greatly from one college to next.

The FAFSA is one of the most important steps in obtaining financial aid. It is the basis for determining a student’s eligibility for scholarships, grants, work-study, and federal student loans. And since it takes less than ten minutes to fill out the FAFSA, now is as good a time as any to get started!

Learn more about Knowledge4College to get help on college finances for your family.