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Big FAFSA Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

The FAFSA. This important step in paying for your master’s degree may seem complicated, but it doesn’t have to be if you follow the tips in this guide. Keep reading for info on how to avoid making big mistakes on the FAFSA.

Author: Shannon Lee

Editor: Staff Editor

According to the office of Federal Student Aid, the majority of Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are submitted by undergraduate students. Despite this fact, graduate students tend to receive higher financial aid awards. For example, the College Board’s Trends in Student Aid 2022 report shows that for the 2021-2022 school year, full-time undergraduate students received an average of $15,330 in financial aid, while full-time graduate students received an average $27,300 in financial aid. This shows that there’s a lot of financial aid out there if you need help paying for your master’s degree.

The first major step in getting that aid is completing the FAFSA. Even if you don’t think you’ll be eligible for federal student aid, many schools and states still want you to complete the FAFSA to be considered for their financial aid packages or programs. The purpose of this guide is to provide an overview of how to make the most of the FAFSA as a master’s student and avoid mistakes that can leave thousands of dollars on the table.

Mistake #1 – Not Filing the FAFSA or Filing Too Late

The FAFSA takes some time and effort to fill out, and you won’t always qualify for the aid that’s available. This is why so many people pass on filing out the FAFSA. Another major mistake is putting off filing until the deadline has passed or all the available aid money has already been distributed.

The Fix: Everyone Should File a FAFSA

Follow These Steps:


  • Check to see if you qualify: To be eligible for federal financial aid obtained through FAFSA, you must meet the following general requirements:
    1. Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen
    2. Have a Social Security number
    3. Be accepted or enrolled in an eligible college or university program
    4. Certify that you’ll use federal student aid for education purposes, that you don’t owe money on a federal student grant, and that you haven’t defaulted on a federal student loan
  • Students with certain disabilities or criminal histories may have additional eligible requirements.
  • File on time: The FAFSA application cycle begins each year on October 1 and the deadline for filing is June 30 of the following year. This means you can file your FAFSA any time from October 1 to June 30. You don’t have to file as soon as the FAFSA becomes available, but many financial aid awards are granted on a first-come-first-served basis. This means that the longer you wait, the less likely you’ll get an award, or any award you get could be smaller than expected. Also, be aware that some schools and states will have FAFSA deadlines that come before June 30, so it helps to contact your prospective schools or state financial aid agency or department to get their specific filing deadlines.
  • You can file late: The deadline to file your FAFSA is June 30, but this deadline applies for federal student aid. Some schools and states may be willing to accept late FAFSA filings, but there’s usually less money available as the deadline gets closer. Even if you file before the June 30 deadline (or any other state or school-imposed deadline), you could still miss out on potential financial aid awards because there’s often not enough money available to help everyone who applies.
  • Remember, you can’t get aid if you don’t file. Despite the drawbacks to filing late, file anyway. There’s always a chance that you could obtain financial aid from some money that’s remaining at a particular school or state-based financial aid grant, loan, or scholarship.

Mistake #2 – Not Understanding the Different Types of Aid

Before spending the time and effort required to complete and file the FAFSA, make sure that the financial aid you’re applying can be used towards your master’s degree. Here’s a brief overview of the various types of financial aid you could qualify for after filing your FAFSA.

The Fix: Educate Yourself on These Basic Aid Types

Here is a quick guide to the types of aid:

Federal Aid


  • Unsubsidized Loans: As long as you properly complete your FAFSA, you’ll be eligible to receive an unsubsidized loan because you don’t need to show financial need. However, you’ll begin accruing interest the moment you take out an unsubsidized loan. There are two types of unsubsidized loans for graduate students: Direct and Direct Plus loans.
  • Subsidized Loans: Generally speaking, these are loans that you need to pay back, but interest doesn’t start accruing until six months after you graduate. Unfortunately, subsidized loans are only available to undergraduate students.
  • Grants: Grants are ideal forms of financial aid because they don’t need to get paid back. The most common federal grant is the Pell Grant, but these are only available to graduate students who are enrolled in a graduate teacher certification program. The other federal grant that’s open to graduate students is the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant, although this is only open to those who will have a career in teaching.

State Aid


Most states have some form of a financial aid program to help students pay for a postsecondary degree. This financial aid often takes the form of scholarships and grants. However, there are often several restrictions on eligibility, such as studying a certain field, location of school, financial need, or residency of the student.

Regardless of the eligibility requirements, many of these programs require applicants to complete the FAFSA to determine eligibility, especially for need-based grants and scholarships. The National Association of Student Financial Aid and Administratorshas a great tool for learning more about each state’s financial aid programs.

Private Aid


When taking out a loan to pay for a master’s degree, most students are best served by getting a federal student loan. However, these are sometimes not enough to pay for all academic expenses, so private student loans from companies like Sallie Mae and SoFi are available. The benefits of these loans are that they’re often easier to apply for and may not have financial aid caps like federal student loans. The drawback is that the terms of the loans, such as interest rates, aren’t usually as advantageous as federal student loans.

Grants


In addition to federal grants available to graduate students who are in an eligible teaching program or working towards careers as teachers, grants are also available from private sources, such as nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses. To apply, a FAFSA isn’t usually needed, but because some of these grants are awarded to those with financial need, completing a FAFSA is sometimes necessary.

Mistake #3 – Filing an Incomplete Form

Properly submitting your FAFSA seems simple enough, and it is a fairly straightforward process. Still, because so much information is required, it’s not uncommon for students to submit incomplete applications. Use this checklist to avoid an incomplete filing.

The Fix: Use This Checklist to Help Remember All of the Steps

  • Gather your required documents. Most FAFSA submissions will need the following documents or information:
    1. Social Security number
    2. Driver’s license number (if applicable)
    3. Alien Registration number (if applicable)
    4. Tax returns and accompanying documents from the last two years
    5. Any documentation concerning untaxed income, such as child support, interest income, etc.
    6. Information relating to your financial accounts, such as investment and bank accounts, as well as real estate assets (excluding your home)
  • Note that you probably won’t need your parents’ Social Security numbers or other financial information unless you’re applying to a particular graduate program, such as law or medical school.
  • Create your FAFSA account & PIN. You’ll create a Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID) and online account to start the process. This FSA ID consists of a username and password that lets you log in to relevant U.S Department of Education secured sites and will serve as your online digital signature.
  • Fill out every page. If a question on a form doesn’t apply to you, put “0” or “not applicable” instead of leaving it blank. Too many blanks on a form can lead to your FAFSA getting rejected.
  • Upload the required documentation. Generally, you won’t need to upload any documentation with your FAFSA. You’ll usually only need to provide documentation if you’re asked to provide verification.
  • Make any necessary corrections. Before submitting your FAFSA, double and triple check your forms for completeness and accuracy. If you make a mistake, you can make corrections later, but that can cause processing delays.
  • Sign and submit. If you’re filing online, you won’t need to sign anything, as the use of your FSA ID to log in to your online FAFSA will serve as your “signature.” You may also choose to print, physically sign, and mail a signature page, although this will increase the time needed to process your FAFSA.
  • Wait for your SAR. You’ll usually get your Student Aid Report (SAR) within three to 21 days after submitting your FAFSA.
  • While you wait: Use the time waiting for your SAR to research and apply for other forms of financial aid, such as grants and scholarships from nonprofit organizations and companies.
  • Review your SAR for correctness. Certain types of information must be updated if your situation changes or if the information was incorrect to begin with, such as your Social Security number.
  • Go through the verification process if requested. When you receive your SAR, you might see a note saying you’ve been selected for verification. Verification is required when a school wants to confirm the accuracy of information you provided on your FAFSA. Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool when completing your FAFSA makes it less likely you’ll go through the verification process.

Mistake #4 – Not Applying for Additional Aid

For many students, federal financial aid awards are not enough to cover the full cost of their education. This means they’ll need financial aid from other sources. This will often require you to complete separate applications that have their own deadlines and application requirements.

The Fix: Determine What Additional Aid You Need to Apply for

The FAFSA is the federal form, but you may also need to apply separately for any state, institutional, or private funding you might need, as well as scholarships and grants. Here is more information about these additional types of funds:


  • State Funding: Most states have special programs for students to help pay for their post-secondary education. These financial aid offerings typically take the form of scholarships, grants, and loan forgiveness. Eligibility requirements will vary, but can include studying a specific academic area, working in a particular field after graduation, academic merit, financial need, attendance of a school located in the state, and belonging to a particular group.
  • Institutional Funding: Some of the best scholarships and grants are offered by the school you’re attending. These are often generous financial aid awards and among the easiest to obtain. They will typically not require a separate application beyond your application for admission and/or FAFSA.
  • Private Loans: These forms of financial aid should be of last resort because they must be paid back, and the interest rates or other loan terms are less generous than what’s available from the federal government. Student loans from private lenders also have their own application process, which may be comparable to completing the FAFSA.
  • Scholarships: These are the most common forms of gift-based financial aid and are usually awarded based on an applicant’s individual merits, but they sometimes include a financial-need component. Scholarships will usually have their own application procedures and requirements, such as forms, letters of recommendation, essays, and academic transcripts.
  • Grants: Grants usually don’t need to be paid back. However, grants are more likely to be offered due to financial need. To apply for a grant, you’ll typically need to complete a specific application process, which includes the same sort of documentation scholarships require.
  • Fellowships: Fellowships are more common at the graduate level and include funding to help graduate students pay for their education. Fellowship funds may include things like tuition scholarships, stipends, and research grants.

Mistake #5 – Not Listing All of Your Schools on the FAFSA

The FAFSA lets you list up to 10 schools in your application and you should take full advantage of this feature. If you don’t, you might not receive a financial aid award from a school you’re considering. This could result in you rejecting a school because of its higher cost of attendance when that school may have been willing to offer you the most generous financial aid package of all of them.

The Fix: List Every School You Apply to

If there’s a school that you might apply to, you should list it in your FAFSA. You can do this by putting the school’s Federal School Code (FSC) on your FAFSA. The Student Aid website lets you search for schools and their FSCs and compare academic information about each school, such as their tuition and graduation rates.

Schools you list on your FAFSA cannot see the other schools you’ve listed. If you want to list more than 10 schools, you can do so by listing 10 schools, waiting until your FAFSA is processed, then logging in and going to your My FAFSA page and selecting “Add/Change Schools.”

Mistake #6 – Not Appealing (if You Need More Aid)

After submitting your FAFSA, you might not get the financial aid award you were expecting or that you feel you were entitled to. The good news is that this financial aid award can be appealed, especially if you think there were facts or circumstances that you felt weren’t considered. If this applies to you, you can start an appeal or reconsideration process with your school.

There is a possibility you could get more aid if one of these things applies to you:

  • Job loss or decrease in household income
  • Divorce or separation of a student’s parents
  • Death of a parent
  • Special needs or disabled children in the family
  • Unreimbursed medical or dental expenses
  • Catastrophic loss of family home or business, as in a natural disaster
  • Change in student’s marital status
  • Dependency override
  • End of child support, Social Security benefits for a child, or alimony payments

The Fix: Submit an Appeal, Here’s How:

  • Ask your school of choice about their appeal process. Each school will have their own appeals process, so contact the school to learn exactly what needs to be done to have them reconsider the financial aid award they sent you. You’ll also be able to get a good idea as to whether you have a case worth appealing.
  • Write a financial aid appeal letter explaining your circumstances. This is your chance to explain why you feel the financial aid award you received wasn’t adequate. Specifically, you’ll want to identify how your situation has changed in a way that warrants an increased financial aid award. When writing this letter, you need to be as complete as possible but provide only relevant information.
  • Gather documentation for your appeal. You’ll need evidence to back up what you say in your appeal letter. Depending on what you include in your letter, you may need financial documents or official government notices as well as letters from individuals that corroborate what happened to change your situation. This might include getting a letter from a lawyer, relative, or professor.
  • Complete any necessary additional forms. Many schools that accept financial aid appeals will likely have a special form you need to complete. You’ll need to fill this out in addition to providing evidence and writing your appeal letter.
  • Follow up one to two weeks after submitting your appeal. After you submit your appeal, you’ll need to confirm it was received and that it’s complete. You’ll need to find out if you must follow up yourself or if your school will send you a confirmation, such as a letter or email.

Mistake #7 – Not Re-filing Every Year

While you apply just once for your graduate program, that’s not how it works with your FAFSA. You’ll need to file a new FAFSA every year, but re-filing for most people is easier than the initial filing because only updated information must be provided.

The Fix: Know Your Re-file Date & Don’t Miss it

After you successfully file your initial FAFSA and get a financial aid award from your school, they should provide you with information about what to do next year to continue or adjust your financial aid package. If they don’t, you can ask how the re-filing process works and pay particular attention to deadlines. Generally, you’ll renew your FAFSA by logging in with your FSA ID at fafsa.gov. You’ll then choose the renewal option, which will prefill your application. All you’ll need to do is update the form with new information.

FAQs about the FAFSA

The above information should tell you much of what you need to know about the FAFSA process as a graduate student. But if you have additional questions about how it works or your eligibility, this FAQ section will help.

Q. Is there an age requirement?

A. The FAFSA has no age limit, and it’s available to students no matter how old they are. One thing to keep in mind is that to submit the FAFSA online, you’ll need to be at least 13 years old. In the rare situation where you can’t file online, filing a paper FAFSA is an option.

Q. Do undocumented students qualify?

A. Because only certain noncitizens are eligible to apply, and all of them will have some form of documented immigration status, undocumented students don’t qualify for the FAFSA. Necessary qualifications include being a U.S. national or a U.S. permanent resident or having an I-94 Arrival-Departure Record with an eligible designation from USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). Still, some schools may have special financial aid options available for undocumented students. Information about these programs can usually be found at the school’s diversity or financial aid office.

Q. Can I edit the FAFSA after I submit it?

A. After you submit your FAFSA, you can still log in with your FSA ID and go to the “My FAFSA” page. From there, you should see an option to make corrections. When making corrections, you’ll need to first create a save key, then you can change the necessary information. This save key is only needed if you want someone else to work on your FAFSA, as no one else should know or use your FSA ID.

Q. Should I apply even if I think I won't qualify?

A. Absolutely. All graduate students who properly submit a FAFSA will at least be eligible for unsubsidized loans. Even if you’re only interested in grants, scholarships, or other gift-based forms of financial aid, you’ll likely need to complete the FAFSA to apply for these, especially if they’re offered by your state or school.

Q. Will filing the FAFSA hurt your chances of getting into your desired school?

A. Probably not, as most schools will take a need-blind approach during the admissions process. After all, many (if not most) graduate students will use some form of financial aid to help pay for their education. If you’re interested in a school that factors your ability to pay for tuition as part of the admissions process, you might want to reconsider whether this is a school you should apply to.

Q. How long does it take to file the FAFSA?

A. According to Federal Student Aid, it takes most students less than 60 minutes to complete and submit the FAFSA. This estimate includes dependent students who need the financial information of their parents. As a result, independent students (the majority of graduate students who complete the FAFSA are considered independent) will usually take even less time to complete and file the FAFSA.

Q. Can I get help with filing the FAFSA?

A. Yes, but you should focus on resources that offer free assistance and avoid companies that charge a fee for their assistance. One of the best and first places to get help is your school’s financial aid office. This includes both the school you’re interested in attending as well as the school you’re currently enrolled in. Another great option is the Federal Student Aid Information Center, or FSAIC. You can contact them by email, chat, or telephone and they can provide general information about the FAFSA, discuss your financial aid options, and explain how to use your FSA ID.

Interview With a FAFSA Expert

MarkKantrowitz

Mark Kantrowitz is an expert on student financial aid, the FAFSA, scholarships, 529 plans, education tax benefits and student loans. His mission is to deliver practical information, advice and tools to students and their families so they can make smarter, more informed decisions about planning and paying for college. His most recent financial aid book is How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.

Q. Financial aid has been changing a bit with new government laws and regulations. Is there anything new that graduate students need to know concerning the FAFSA or financial aid in general?

A. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, simplifies the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) starting with the 2024-25 FAFSA, assuming that there are no further delays in implementing the new FAFSA. This reduces the number of questions on the FAFSA by two-thirds, from 108 to about three dozen. The new FAFSA will be better aligned with federal income tax returns. The term Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be replaced with Student Aid Index (SAI). More income will be sheltered in the need analysis formula. Cash support (untaxed income) to the student will no longer be reported. The small business exclusion will be eliminated. The definition of cost of attendance will change. In particular, transportation expenses will now include the cost of travel between home, school and work. Cost of professional licensing, certification or first professional credentials incurred during the academic year must be included in cost of attendance. College financial aid administrators may no longer have a policy of denying all financial aid appeals.

The REPAYE income-driven repayment plan will change effective July 1, 2024, possibly sooner. The definition of discretionary income will decrease, yielding a lower loan payment. (The loan payments for undergraduate debt will be cut about in half. For graduate debt, the payments will be slightly lower.) The 25-year forgiveness will apply only to graduate debt; undergraduate debt will be eligible for 20-year forgiveness even for graduate students. Borrowers whose initial graduate debt was under $12,000 will be eligible for forgiveness in 10 years, with this threshold increasing by an additional year for each $1,000 in additional initial debt.

Up to $35,000 in 529 plan money (lifetime limit per beneficiary) can be rolled over into a Roth IRA for the same beneficiary. The 529 plan must have been in existence for at least 15 years, and only contributions as of five years ago can be rolled over.

Q. When filing the FAFSA, what are some ways a student can double-check to make sure they aren't leaving any potential money on the table?

A. The most common reason why students leave money on the table is by failing to file the FAFSA. Another reason is filing the FAFSA late. Students who file the FAFSA as soon as possible on or after October 1 tend to get more grants than students who file the FAFSA later, since some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Another common error that has a big impact on the EFC is including assets that should be excluded, such as the net worth of the principal place of residence and retirement plans. Other common errors include failing to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, entering cents in dollar fields instead of whole dollar amounts (the decimal point is ignored, causing the amounts to be 100 times as large), incorrectly claiming head of household status on your tax returns, and not appealing for more financial aid when the applicant is affected by special circumstances (such as job loss and pay cuts or high unreimbursed medical expenses or dependent care costs).

Q. What about students who have special life circumstances, such as a history of filing for bankruptcy (and perhaps defaulting on a loan) or those who are homeless and have no solid mailing address? Will they potentially run into problems with the FAFSA?

A. If a student is homeless, they should contact the college financial aid administrator or their school counselor. Some schools will let the student use their address on the FAFSA. A recent bankruptcy (in the last five years) makes the borrower ineligible for the PLUS loan (Parent PLUS for undergraduate students and Grad PLUS for graduate students). It does not otherwise affect the FAFSA. Being in default on a federal student loan does make the student ineligible for federal student aid. But, the student can regain eligibility by rehabilitating the defaulted loan, such as making a specified number of voluntary payments under a loan rehabilitation agreement. Other special circumstances can be appealed, as described above.

Q. In some cases, students will need their parents' information, such as income or social security numbers. What sort of recourse do students have if they can't obtain that information?

A. Graduate students are automatically considered independent, and parent information is not required on the FAFSA. Some colleges will ask the student to provide parental information for the college’s own financial aid funds, typically for law school or medical school and for applicants up to age 26 to 30, depending on the school. If a student is unable to provide that information, they should appeal to the college financial aid office. College financial aid administrators will make exceptions if there’s a complete severing of the family relationship (e.g., court protection from abuse orders against the parents, the parents are institutionalized or incarcerated, or parent whereabouts are unknown).

Q. Is there anything else you'd like graduate students to know about the FAFSA?

Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool will not only ensure that more accurate information is provided on the FAFSA, and save some time completing the FAFSA, but it will also reduce the likelihood that your FAFSA is selected for verification. Any data elements transferred from the IRS are not subject to verification.

Filling out the FAFSA takes less than an hour, on average, and less than half an hour for many applicants.