Top 3 Places People Get Stuck On FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an application that all college students must submit to qualify for different types of federal student aid. The FAFSA form, while extremely important, is known to have some complexities. We hope to clear some of those questions up here.

  • Your CSS Profile is Not the Same as a FAFSA Profile
  • Understanding Common FAFSA Terms is Key
  • You Can List Up to 20 Colleges on Your FAFSA

Student frustrated with confusing offer letter

The federal government offers different types of federal financial aid including grants, scholarships, and federal student loans. These funds are meant to help college students cover the cost of college. The amount and types of aid that each student receives depends on several different factors including family income.

To receive any type of federal financial aid, college students must file the FAFSA within the applications deadline. If they fail to apply, they won’t qualify for financial aid from the federal government.

We’ve put together the top 3 places students get stuck on the FAFSA so you can be careful to avoid these mistakes.

1. Thinking That The CSS and The FAFSA Are The Same Thing

CSS and FAFSA are both applications for financial aid. But, these are two completely different types of financial aid applications funded by two completely different organizations. They have different eligibility criteria, terms and conditions, and submission deadlines. Most importantly, filing any one application does not automatically qualify you for the other type of aid. You need to file each application separately.

The CSS Profile is an online financial aid form established by the College Board. Almost 400 universities, colleges, and scholarship programs use the CSS Profile as part of the financial aid process. College Board has published the full list of participating institutions and programs for 2024-25.

If you’re applying to any schools on that list, you must fill both, the FAFSA and the CSS profile to get the maximum amount of aid you qualify for. If you’re not applying to any schools on the list, you need to fill out only the FAFSA.

Colleges that use the CSS Profile use the information you provide to award non-federal financial aid. Keep in mind that they will also check your FAFSA information to award federal financial aid.

It’s important that the financial information on both applications must match. Details that don’t match, inaccuracies, or misleading information can have serious consequences. If it’s a minor error, the school’s financial aid office may ask you for additional information to verify the details. If it’s a major error, you may become ineligible to receive any type of financial aid.

Before filling out the application, take time to understand how the CSS Profile works to avoid any mistakes.

2. Misunderstanding The Definitions Of Certain Terms On The FAFSA

Many students make the mistake of assuming what certain terms on the FAFSA mean. For example, family size or dependent student vs. independent student. Remember, FAFSA has very specific definitions for every term. This is to prevent anyone from intentionally or unintentionally submitting inaccurate information and receiving too much or too little financial aid.

Filling in the FAFSA form can be time-consuming so be prepared to spend some time working on it. More importantly, even before you get started, make sure to go through the definitions of specific terms.

Read More > FAFSA FAQ: Common Terms, How to Apply, and More.

The Federal Student Aid website has detailed information on every term on the FAFSA application to avoid any confusion. For example, take a look at their explanation for who is considered a parent for FAFSA purposes. Their definition may be different from what you initially assumed. Many students answer this question inaccurately. Other questions students answer incorrectly are related to legal guardianship and total income tax, among others.

Rushing through the FAFSA application without understanding the definitions and submitting incorrect information could delay the approval process.

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3. Listing Only One College On The FAFSA

According to the U.S. Department of Education, as many as 33% of freshmen FAFSA applicants make this mistake. They list only one college on their FAFSA application. The problem with this is only the listed school will be able to see your financial information and put together a financial aid package for you.

Here’s how it works.

When you apply for the FAFSA, you will be asked to list the colleges you’ve applied to. You can list up to 20 colleges. This list can include colleges you’re considering applying to. If you’re applying to more than 20 colleges, the FAFSA makes provisions for that too.

Once you submit the completed form, it is sent to all the schools that you’ve listed. The financial office of each school will use the information you’ve entered to calculate your financial aid package. Schools not listed on your application will not receive this information and cannot work on your financial aid package.

You can add additional schools later through the FAFSA corrections option, but this will delay your financial aid.

We know that understanding FAFSA can be confusing. For more information and to help answer questions you may still have, here are some great resources:

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