LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - One of the worst mistakes you can make with college financial aid is simply failing to file the all-important Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
The U.S. Department of Education began accepting FAFSA applications for the 2015-16 academic year on Jan. 1, and most forms of financial help - grants, loans, work study - depend on your turning it in.
But there are plenty of other ways to cheat yourself inadvertently with this form. Here are some of the most common:
1. Waiting to apply
The FAFSA asks for figures from your 2014 tax return, which few families have filed this early in the year. Those who wait to apply until they complete their taxes, however, may be making a serious mistake.
Many forms of financial aid are first-come, first-served, and some states set deadlines as early as February for their own programs. State deadlines can be found using a link on the home page of the FAFSA website (fafsa.ed.gov/deadlines.htm).
College consultants suggest filing the FAFSA with estimated numbers as soon after Jan. 1 as you can and then updating it with the actual figures once your tax returns are filed (which you should also do as early as possible). You can electronically import your 2014 tax numbers from the IRS, using a link embedded in the FAFSA’s online application, starting Feb. 2 or two weeks after you file your return, whichever is later.
Apps such as education lender Sallie Mae’s free “College Ahead” can help you keep track of all these deadlines.
2. Filing the old-school way
The Education Department still accepts paper forms, but expect a much longer processing time - two to four weeks compared with three to five days for the electronic version.
You cannot use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool with the paper version and must answer all 102 questions, since only the electronic version will tailor the questions it asks to the details you provide. The online version also flags potential errors for correction.
If you do file a paper form, be sure to fill in all the blanks, adding a “0” if the question does not apply to you. To avoid math errors, make sure to go over the form carefully, and most of all, sign it.
3. Misunderstanding dependency rules
If you were born before Jan. 1, 1992, you are considered independent and do not have to include your parents’ financial information on your FAFSA. Otherwise, you probably do, even if your folks cannot or will not help you financially.
There are a few exceptions for people under 24 to be considered independent: those who are married, have dependent children, served in the military, have a legal guardian or are wards of the court. You can find out more about the rules, which are different from those used by the IRS, on the Education Department’s financial aid site.
4. Misreading instructions
Household size also is incredibly important to the financial aid formula, but many applicants fail to read the FAFSA instructions on how to determine this number.
Students may not have included themselves or, say, ailing grandparents who receive more than half of their support from the parents.
Another mistake is using a name that does not match your government-issued identification, like a nickname. This can delay processing of your application.
Carefully reading the FAFSA instructions can help. So can guidebooks such as "Filing the FAFSA" by Mark Kantrowitz and David Levy. A download of the book is available for free on Edvisors.com (www.edvisors.com/).
Follow us @ReutersMoney or here Editing by Beth Pinsker and Lisa Von Ahn