Each year, the U.S. Department of Education awards approximately $150 billion in grants, work-study funds and low-interest loans to millions of students. To be considered for most forms of financial aid, students looking to get help paying for college must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Deadlines for each state and each college vary (some have already passed), but June 30--one of the last federal deadlines--is approaching.
If you have not yet completed your FAFSA, here are a few tips to save you time and hassle and ensure you put yourself in the best position to get financial aid for college:
1. Do your FAFSA today. Most students don't realize that much of federal student aid is given away on a first-come, first-served basis. Unlike studying for your college exams, procrastinating on filing your FASFA can put a strain on your finances, so don't delay.
2. Apply online. Using the web-based version of the FAFSA is the fastest and easiest way to apply. Applying electronically allows colleges to receive your processed information faster than taking the traditional mail-in route. The online FAFSA also guides you through the application and allows you to save time by skipping some questions that are not applicable to you.
3. Get organized. Create a checklist of the documents you need early on; these may include forms your parents must fill out. For instance, if you are a dependent student, you will need to ask your parents for their tax returns, their bank statements and other financial documents. Getting organized before you start allows you to complete the FAFSA seamlessly--without having to stop and retrieve missing items.
4. Use the IRS data retrieval. You can save time by transferring financial information from your filed tax returns using the IRS data retrieval tool. If you filed the FAFSA based on estimated income data, you can also use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to update your FAFSA form after filing this year's income tax returns.
5. Sign your FAFSA using a Federal Student Aid PIN. You and your parents can sign your online application using a Federal Student Aid PIN. You can apply for a PIN in just a few minutes at www.pin.ed.gov. Once you receive one, you will need it to access your Student Aid Report online, make corrections, file a renewal and access your information on other Federal Student Aid websites. Your PIN can also be used to sign loan contracts later on.
If you choose not to use a PIN, you can print, sign and mail in a signature page. However, this can take longer to process and can delay how quickly your college applications are processed and reviewed.
6. Submit requested materials to your school. After submitting your FAFSA, check to see if your school requests any additional materials. A number of schools request you send signed copies of your federal tax returns and W-2 forms. In some cases, your school won't start processing your financial aid application until they receive all the requested documents.
The bottom line. Prospective college students who delay or fail to complete their FAFSA may be missing out on a significant amount of financial aid.
Winnie Yeung is a Product Manager for NerdScholar, a website that provides financial literacy tips, a student loan calculator and scholarships for Hispanics.