But her parents, who are from Korea, were in no position to help her fill out the federal form -- the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA -- necessary to apply for federal grants, loans and work-study funds .
"I remember feeling a little bit daunted when I first started because I just wasn't sure what I was supposed to put in," says Lee, now 25 and a 2014 graduate of California State University--Long Beach. "I kind of had to figure out everything myself."
At 108 questions, the FAFSA is longer than a 1040 tax form, with questions about student and parent income, savings, family make up, number of students in college and more.
[Watch this video to avoid common FAFSA mistakes.]
"It can seem terribly intrusive , and it can be confusing," says Peter Van Buskirk, former dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall College and founder and president of Best College Fit. "There are a lot of nuances associated with questions that can leave you scratching your head about, 'What should I put here?'"
Even so, the biggest mistake a student can make is not completing the form, says Kim Cook, executive director of National College Access Network, an association of college access and success programs. She says once a family gets started, the average completion time is about 30 minutes, although it may take more like 45 minutes for a first-time filer.
"About 85 percent of students who complete the FAFSA receive some sort of financial aid," she says. "This is definitely an endeavor worth doing."
Avoid glitches by being prepared, gathering key information, keeping track of deadlines and checking definitions , among other tasks.
-- Know your deadlines: The FAFSA for the 2018-19 academic year will be available on Oct. 1.
And while technically the filing deadline is June 30, 2019, Cook recommends that families fill out the FAFSA in October or as soon as possible to hit " priority filing deadlines," or deadlines that states and institutions use to award aid. That's because both those sources, which rely on the FAFSA data, often have limited funds and could run out of money. Check with the institutions where you plan to apply to get those deadlines; they are typically in February or March, she says.
-- Get an FSA ID: An FSA ID -- or Federal Student Aid ID -- is a username and password that you will need to sign your FAFSA online. If you are a dependent student, both you and a parent need your own, separate FSA IDs.
Request your FSA ID a few days in advance of filling out the FAFSA. It can take up to three days before you can use it to sign your FAFSA, according to the Department of Education, and your name must match exactly with the Social Security Administration's records.
Cook says students and families should have their FSA IDs ready "rather than trying to deal with that when you're poised and ready with your information to complete the FAFSA."
[Read about the importance of filling out the FAFSA early.]
-- Gather documents: Collect all the documents you will need to fill out the FAFSA. "You want to have the tax return from two years prior at your fingertips," Van Buskirk says. "Use the return from 2016 if you're filling out the FAFSA for the 2018-19 school year."
In addition to the tax return, you'll need to know the balance in your checking and savings account s and information about other assets, not including your primary residence or retirement accounts.
-- Check definitions: There may be some unfamiliar terms on the FAFSA, so be sure to check definitions, particularly when it comes to how parents are defined, the number in your household and the number in college, Cook says.
"These questions often have different definitions or calculations than on your taxes," Cook says. "It's important to read those questions carefully, including the backup instructions."
Lee says she recalls being confused by some unfamiliar terms but f ound it easy to look them up on the online FAFSA form.
-- Include all schools: Make sure to include all schools that you think you might attend so that your information is sent there.
"It's very important to do that ; otherwise , the schools won't have your data to use for award-packaging, and they may not even know that you're seeking aid," Cook says.
If you decide later to apply to more schools, you can always go back and add more schools to your completed FAFSA for no fee.
-- Sign the form: When you've finished, sign the form electronically with your FSA ID -- and with your parent's FSA ID , if you're a dependent student. There's also a way for a parent to print a signature page, sign a paper copy and mail it back if he or she doesn't want to use an FSA ID.
Lee, who applied for financial aid via the FAFSA all four years of college, says it ended up being "pretty simple."
"I'm so thankful because I would not have been able to go to college without it," she says.
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.