Students are now able to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which allows millions of college students to apply for $120 billion worth of federal college aid.
Federal aid is essential for millions of Americans who struggle to finance a college degree. Roughly 70 percent of grads leave college with student debt, and over 44 million Americans hold a total of more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt.
Every year, FAFSA provides federal grants, loans and work-study funds to more than 13 million college students, making it the largest provider of student financial aid in the country.
"The biggest mistake that people make is not filling out the FAFSA or filling it out late," Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators tells CNBC.
"To students who don't think that FAFSA applies to them, wake up and smell the coffee. You should do it," says Charlie Javice, founder and CEO of Frank, an online FAFSA platform. "It takes four minutes. You are probably going to get 10,000 to 30,000 worth of aid in your first year."
of Americans qualify for federal college aid, it can be confusing to complete. These three tips can help you make sure you get the most out of your FAFSA.
FAFSA pulls information from your most recent tax return, so it is crucial that you have your taxes squared away before you complete your application for federal student aid, says certified financial planner Matt Chancey.
For some students, this may mean filing taxes for the first time. Even if you are only working part-time, it is important that you file your taxes. "Make sure you file your taxes each year if you are making over $10,000 in annual income," says Javice.
"When you submit your FAFSA documents, you want them to be as complete and accurate and thorough as possible," Chancey tells CNBC. "If your tax returns aren't all buttoned up, that's going to be hard."
Completing the FAFSA on time is one of the most obvious ways to get the most out of your FAFSA application. The problem with meeting the FAFSA deadline is that it can vary from state to state. In order to avoid any confusion, students should file as soon as they are able. You can find the official list of FAFSA deadlines here.
Additionally, in some states, filing sooner may mean you are able to earn more college aid. While federal aid is not distributed on a first-come-first-served basis, some states do issue college aid in this manner.
While the Department of Education has a feature for students to check state deadlines, you can also also check with a state aid administrator for the latest information on deadlines and allocation practices.
For the 2018-19 school year, 13 states have indicated they will be awarding funds on a first-come, first-served basis. Families who live in those states should file their FAFSA as soon as possible.
More generally, studies have shown that students who apply sooner receive more money. A study from Edvisors.com found that students who file the FAFSA in the first three months received more than double the grant money.
"If you don't know the answer, please still fill in the blank," says Javice. "You will not get in trouble if you are a little bit off but you will get a lot of problems if you don't file FAFSA on time. Always file it, meet the deadline and go back and edit it if you aren't sure."
Your chance to maximize your college aid package doesn't end once you have submitted your FAFSA application.
The Department of Education allows families to appeal because, he says, "you can fill out the FAFSA in December, and by the time that your child is going [to college] the next fall, things can change."
Javice adds that families who have recently been affected by a natural disaster have much to gain from submitting supplements and addendums.
"To those who have been affected by Harvey and Irma, you should be negotiating your aid because of the natural disaster," she says. "You will likely be in a great position to negotiate and get free college aid because of the unfortunate events that happened."
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