College Students: Ring in the New Year With the FAFSA

By Catherine Groux
Posted December 31, 2012 12:00 PM

Students should fill out the FAFSA as close to Jan. 1 as possible.
Students should fill out the FAFSA as close to Jan. 1 as possible.
When the clock strikes midnight on December 31, most students are not thinking about financial aid, but some higher education experts say this could be a mistake. Beginning January 1, students can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a form that makes them eligible to receive federal aid and, in many cases, financial aid from states and colleges.

To make the FAFSA process a bit easier for students, here are some tips from financial aid and college experts:

Time is of the Essence

While many students spend New Year's Day with friends and family, they should keep in mind that filling out the FAFSA as close to January 1 as possible is crucial. Although students have until June 30, 2013 to complete the form, the U.S. Department of Education states that the FAFSA includes a few first-come, first-served federal student aid programs. Therefore, if students wait to complete the form, they may not be able to take advantage of these valuable opportunities.

At the same time, individual states have different deadlines for the FAFSA, which students should also keep in mind. Sallie Mae reports that the earliest state deadline is February 15 for Connecticut students, followed by early March deadlines for individuals in California, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland and Michigan. For a full list of state FAFSA deadlines, students should visit the official FAFSA website. 

Get Organized

Students and parents will find the FAFSA process far less stressful if they have all of the necessary documents in order before they begin completing the form. This means organizing documents like W-2 forms, bank statements, investment information, Social Security numbers, federal income tax returns, and student and parent driver's licenses.

Don't Wait on Income Tax Filings

When families fill out the FAFSA, they will need to use 2012 tax information. However, those who have not filed their 2012 taxes should not wait on filling out the form. Instead, Sallie Mae recommends they use their 2011 tax information to complete the application as close to January 1 as possible. Then, once they have their 2012 taxes, they can update their FAFSA forms.

Ask for Help

If any portion of the FAFSA confuses students, it is crucial that they ask for help - after all, submitting incorrect information could cost them thousands of dollars in financial aid. The U.S. Department of Education recommends students browse the "FAFSA on the Web" entry page, particularly its "Help and Hints" and "Need Help?" sections. If this does not give them the answers they need, students can click on the FAFSA's "Contact Us" icon to chat with a real technical support staff member. Another option students have for getting FAFSA support is contacting the financial aid office at the college they plan to attend.

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