College Game Plan

Before you file the FAFSA, check for these errors

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid may be a mere six pages, but it still offers college-bound students plenty of opportunities to trip up.

Filing the FAFSA should be easier this year. Families were able to submit their paperwork as early as October 1, using data from their 2015 tax returns. They can use the IRS Retrieval Tool to automatically transfer return data into their FAFSA.

Previously, the start date was three months later, on Jan. 1, a timeline that had early-filing families estimating data on student aid forms as they waited for W-2s, 1099s and other year-end tax return documents.

Students at Stanford University in California.
Erin Lubin | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Despite those improvements, the FAFSA is still an "intrusive" form with plenty of detailed financial questions applicants may not know the answers to offhand, said Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of strategy for college and scholarship search site

"Many families are a little intimidated by it," said Kantrowitz, who is also a co-author of the free e-book "Filing the FAFSA." "There's also a fear that many families have that if they answer a question wrong, they will ruin their child's chances at financial aid."

Nix that worry. Correcting data that was wrong at the time of filing is typically a simple process, he said. In some cases, families can also update their application or appeal to the college if information has changed since filing that could affect their eligibility.

That said, some FAFSA missteps can delay the processing of your application, which isn't ideal for state and college aid doled out on a first-come, first-served basis. Avoid these common mistakes:

Not filing

"The first mistake is that families fail to file for financial aid," said David Levy, editor of and Kantrowitz's co-author on "Filing the FAFSA." "They disqualify themselves."

This can create problems on several levels, Levy said. Even if you don't think you'll qualify for need-based aid, a completed FAFSA is required to apply for federal student loans, and to qualify for many universities' merit-based aid.

Plus, many families are wrong about their qualifications. In a 2015 study, Kantrowitz estimated that 2 million students who didn't file the FAFSA in 2011-2012 would have qualified for Pell Grants of about $4,700 apiece.

Filing for the wrong year

The changes to the FAFSA have created a unique overlap this fall: Forms are available for two academic years, both of which use data from tax year 2015. Make sure you're completing the correct form for next year, the 2017-2018 academic year.

Transposing digits

Inadvertently swapping digits in your Social Security number or other figures are common tax-return missteps, and they are also common on the FAFSA, said Levy. Porting in data from your tax return can help avoid this problem on many questions, but it's still smart to double-check all figures before submitting your forms.

Filing for “you”

"The student is the applicant, the parent is the parent," Kantrowitz said.

Although it's often a parent filling out the FAFSA, on most of the application, references to "you" or "your" is asking for the student's information, he said. Wrong data here will result in numbers gauging aid eligibility as if the parent is going to college, rather than the child.

Inflating assets

How much you have saved factors in to aid eligibility, so make sure you're not claiming more than you have to. Certain assets, including money held in a qualified retirement plan and the value of the family's home, aren't reportable on the FAFSA.

"People see 'investments' and they get confused," Kantrowitz said.

Reporting the wrong family data

"In the case of a divorce or separation, sometimes families will submit the wrong parent's information," said Levy.

The FAFSA requires data for the custodial parent only, he said. So don't include the other parent — even if he or she will be contributing to college bills. But if the custodial parent has remarried, you do have to include data for that new spouse.