Guest Post from Susan McCrackin
Senior Director of Financial Aid Methodology at the College Board
FAFSA. Five letters that change lives for millions of students across the country.
This year’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is here. Because government grants compose 74 percent of the $185 billion financial aid pool, it’s no surprise that FAFSA is a source of stress
for students and their families.
It doesn't have to be that way. Susan McCrackin, Senior Director Financial Aid Methodology at the
College Board, offers this eight-step map to help educators help students work through FAFSA.
1. Gather Documents First
Here’s a list of documents students should have in hand before they begin to fill out FAFSA. Also steer
students to get a U.S. Department of Education personal identification number (PIN.) Here’s the PIN
2. Think About Taxes
Parents’ taxes are an important part in the FAFSA process. Getting taxes done by February 1 st may be
unrealistic, so last year’s taxes and this year’s pay-stubs can help create estimates. After February 3 rd, the
IRS Data Retrieval Tool becomes available, allowing students and parents to access the IRS tax return
information needed to complete the FAFSA and transfer the data directly into their FAFSA from the IRS
website. Plus, remind families that they can complete taxes without actually filing. So if they owe money,
they don’t have immediately cut a check to Uncle Sam.
3. Find Quiet Time
Many of us work with FAFSA every year. Families don’t have that familiarity. Encourage them to break
down this large application into smaller pieces. These do’s and don’ts can help.
1. Don’t sprint. Take questions one at a time.
2. Do read each question carefully and out loud. It improves question comprehension.
3. Don’t multi-task. Turn off cell phones, music players and televisions.
4. Do find a quiet place where FAFSA will have your full attention.
4. Stay Student Focused
Parents often forget that the student always provides information. Parents are required to provide their
information if the student is a dependent.
So when parents see a question that refers to “I,” remember that “I” is the student. “You” is also the
student. When questions address parents, you will see questions that refer to “your parents.” That is
where parental information goes.
5. Avoid Parent Traps
When you see “parents,” FAFSA is referring to the student’s biological or adoptive parents. When the
parents are married, then the student and both parents complete the FAFSA.
If the parents are not together, things can get confusing. BigFuture by the College Board created the
corresponding infographic to help address some commonly asked questions.
6. Keep Track of Deadlines
Every college has a different set of deadlines based on priority, merit, early decisions etc. BigFuture by
the College Board helps families sort through these deadlines with detailed college profiles and a free,
customized action plan. And just like a student should raise his or her hands with a question in class,
encourage them to call a college with a specific question.
7. Profile CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE®
FAFSA opens the doors to federal aid. There’s also almost $50 billion in non-federal aid available – from
colleges, states and private institutions. Some colleges and programs use the College Board’s CSS/
Financial Aid PROFILE to help award these monies.
CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE is an online application that collects information used by almost 400 colleges
and scholarship programs to award financial aid outside sources from the federal government. Families
must complete the application and the College Board sends it to the colleges and scholarship programs
they have chosen.
Here’s a list of colleges that use CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE® and where you go to complete the CSS/
Financial Aid PROFILE®. One CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE® report costs $25. Additional reports are $16
each. There are fee waivers available for low-income families.
8. Practice Makes Perfect
Educators can’t be with every student as they fill out FAFSA. To provide support BigFuture created a free
FAFSA webinar that walks students, section by section, through an actual FAFSA application. Families
can access the free FAFSA webinar 24/7 on their terms.
FAFSA can change a student’s life forever. Following this map can help extend your activities with
students and guide them to a better future.