You Have To Ask For The Money (By Completing the FAFSA, and More!)


Did you know every school has a different financial aid process?

Going through the process

To access this free college money, you must ask for it. That means completing those nasty financial aid forms, like the FAFSA, CSS Profile, institutional forms, verification, and more. Remember, colleges are the gatekeepers of 90%+ of all the financial aid awarded each year, therefore, to get this money you must go through the financial aid process.

In summary, this process includes the following major general steps:

  1. Apply.
  2. Get an offer—only an estimate.
  3. Analyze the award.
  4. Negotiate.
  5. Finalize the award—verification and tax information.
  6. Make the college decision.
  7. Accept the award.

Unfortunately, each school’s process is unique, making this process even more complicated. So, how do you apply for aid?

Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

All schools require the FAFSA if you want the financial aid office involved. This must be completed for all schools even if you are only just interested in government student loans. Remember, in general, public schools meet need with government money or loans, not their own money.

Go to to see the form, which has many pages/boxes to complete.

What is amazing to me is that because of one of the many financial aid myths out there (“why bother? I won’t get any money”), only 52% of the 2022 senior class completed the FAFSA form (meaning 48% did not). Do not let that be you!

CSS Profile

Most private schools with significant free money require the CSS Profile (that’s where most free money comes from). To gain access to the CSS Profile, you must register for it first.

The CSS Profile includes many more questions than the FAFSA. Here are some major differences:

  • CSS Profile asks for three years’ income information; FAFSA asks for one.
  • CSS Profile asks about home equity; FAFSA does not.
  • CSS Profile asks about all businesses; FAFSA doesn’t ask for business info on all businesses, only some.
  • CSS Profile includes supplemental school questions, including information on retirement plans, who owns cars, etc.; FAFSA does not.
  • CSS Profile asks about non-custodial parents (ex-spouses); FAFSA does not (that may change with “FAFSA Simplification”).

Why all these questions? Because they can. Fundamentally, the CSS Profile must be consistent with FAFSA; otherwise, a school has the right to ask for more details or explanations. You’ll want to avoid red flags.

School Institutional Forms

Many private schools (as you may have discovered, the ones with the most FREE money) require you to complete even more forms. One example is what we call the “institutional form.” This is the school’s own form, in addition to the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. Usually, this will ask similar questions to the other forms, but sometimes it includes unique questions. As stated earlier, your answers must be consistent with other forms submitted.

Even More Forms!

More forms may be needed, if the following are applicable:

  • Divorced/separated parents—the schools may want to know more about your ex-spouse and their financial resources.
  • Business forms—the schools may want to learn more about your businesses, especially the financial details. These additional forms are extremely confusing and complex.

Why so many financial aid forms?

Although the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and institutional forms have some unique questions, many of the basic questions are asked three times (cash in bank, investments, etc.). Why? This is either to get you to create a “red flag” or give up!

“Red flags”

Imagine this scenario: the parent does not get involved with the college process and, in particular, does not complete the financial aid forms. Instead, the student attempts to complete them. The student completes a FAFSA that includes $10K parent cash and $20K parent investments (they just put a number in there to get the task done). Later, the student finds out they have to complete another form and now puts in completely different amounts—let’s say, $20K parent cash and $40K parent investments.

The consequence? This creates a “red flag.” Now, the financial aid office may ask for six months of bank statements or brokerage account statements to “prove” which numbers are correct. Why? Because they can—they are the gatekeepers.

Give up

Remember, one “myth” you may have heard is: “No matter what, you will never get free money.” Once you are faced with completing all of these forms, you may remember this and decide to give up and not bother with the headache of completing them. This would be a huge mistake, leading to missed opportunities.

My recommended insights are:

  • Always tell the truth.
  • Make sure numbers on all forms are consistent (to avoid “red flags”).
  • Never give up—get through the process; it will pay off.

I provide more details regarding the forms and the process of getting them done later; however, right now I want to present you with more important information to grasp at this point.

Financial aid form mistakes

What if you make a mistake? It could cost you thousands—even tens of thousands—of dollars.

Because the forms are so complex and confusing, there is a potential to make mistakes, but how would you ever know you made a mistake? All you will get is an SAI number output from the black box.

Consider this example:

Assume that $40K in college savings in the student’s name has an SAI charge of about $10K; whereas, if in the parents’ names (legally), it has an SAI charge of about $2K—an $8K difference. So…

If you had a $40K 529 plan, is it a student or a parent asset? Because it has a student’s name on the account (and to get the optimized tax benefit, it must be used for that student’s college costs), many people would consider it a student asset and put the dollar amounts in the student asset box on the forms. The vast majority of 529 plans—wherein the parent is the owner and the student is listed as the beneficiary—would actually be considered a parent asset in the financial aid formulas. If a $40K 529 plan asset was set up this way and mistakenly put as a student asset, the result would be an $8K mistake! Would you even know you made an $8K mistake. Or any other mistakes?

When should you submit forms?

On this topic, there are three common myths about when to complete the forms:

  • October of senior year
  • After you get accepted by the college
  • After your tax returns are done

Why fill in the forms in October?

In a typical year, the FAFSA form is made available to the public on October 1 for new high school seniors and their families; therefore, many people assume that is the due date. As you have learned, there are many other forms besides the FAFSA to be completed. Plus, even if you submitted a FAFSA in early October, the school would not look at it until much later; in most cases, many months later.

New FAFSA (proposed FAFSA “simplification”)

To make things worse, as mentioned in a separate blog post, the new FAFSA was delayed until late December 2023! That will create even more confusion than in a “normal” year.

Please double-check what the current situation is, get informed, and plan accordingly.

Why fill in the forms after you have been accepted?

Many would assume a student would not be considered for financial aid until after the child is accepted at the college. In fact, for most schools, the financial aid forms deadlines are typically soon after their application deadlines—this is especially true for schools with money.

Why fill in the forms after a completed tax return?

Many questions on the financial aid forms explicitly refer to items on an actual federal tax return; but you cannot fill in these forms until the tax return is done. Unfortunately, schools do not care whether you complete your tax return or not. If you have not, they expect you to put in estimates by their deadlines.

My recommended insights

All of the above answers are wrong. As a result, there could be huge financial consequences if you miss school deadlines.

Every school is unique, therefore for each college applied to, you must:

  • Determine the school’s financial aid process
  • Find out which forms the school requires
  • Learn their deadlines and do not miss them

To make this even more complicated, schools have different deadlines if you are applying early decision/action vs. regular decision. You must be aware of these factors too, if applicable.

More details on the financial aid form process

The following checklists contain more detailed steps needed to complete each type of form.

FAFSA checklist

  • Apply or obtain FSA ID from the FAFSA website.
  • Gather the documents needed.
  • Submit your FAFSA (and other forms) on time.
  • Retrieve or review your Student Aid Report (SAR).
  • Correct any mistakes, if applicable.
  • Comply with any additional information requests from the school.
  • Be proactive with the financial aid office at
    the school.

When I say “be proactive,” I mean do not assume that you have completed/submitted all the relevant forms. Contact each school to verify that all required forms have been received; if not, correct any deficiencies ASAP.

CSS Profile checklist

  • Register for the CSS Profile on the CollegeBoard website.
  • Gather the documents needed.
  • Submit your CSS Profile (and other forms) on time.
  • Don’t forget any supplemental questions.
  • Comply with any additional information requests from the school.
  • Be proactive with the financial aid office at the school.

Additional forms

Be aware of any additional forms, including:

  • Business/farm forms
  • Separation/divorce (non-custodial) forms
  • Federal government verification

You’re not done yet!

Assuming you have met all the requirements and submitted all the required financial aid forms for each school, you now have to wait to find out if your student has been accepted at each school. If they have—meaning you have received a letter of acceptance from the school’s admissions office—you now have to focus your attention on the school’s financial aid office.

At this stage, I urge you to be proactive. Do not assume everything is fine and will just happen. Remember, you need to submit financial aid forms to get the financial aid office involved. As a result, you will ultimately get a financial aid award letter from the college. Contact the financial aid office and ask when you can expect to receive this letter, then keep track of the dates and make sure you get it.

Finalize the award

Now that you have received your financial aid award letter, there’s even more to do. Here is an overview of additional terms and/or steps you will be exposed to or expected to complete:

  • IRS Data Retrieval
  • IRS Transcript
  • IDOC
  • Copies of federal tax returns, W-2s, 1099s, etc.
  • Copies of business tax returns, etc., if applicable

Be aware that once you receive your award letter, it will typically say (somewhere in the fine print) that the award letter is an estimate. Although there may be other requests for certain information, the key thing for you to realize is the school will be asking for your income tax filing information to verify that the income information you put on your financial aid forms is reasonably accurate. Your award will not be final until you submit this required information.

Unfortunately, each school will ask for this information in different ways. Some schools will automatically verify your tax information on your FAFSA based on something called an IRS Data Retrieval tool (where the information is directly transmitted by the IRS onto your FAFSA filing).

Unfortunately, private schools are different. They may ask you to sign an IRS Transcript, which is a form that authorizes the school to ask for a copy of your tax return. Others simply ask for you to make copies of tax returns, etc. to send directly to them.

The other major option is something called IDOC, where the school asks you to send the forms to a third-party vendor, who, in turn, scans them and submits them to the school.

In any case, be proactive. Do not assume the school has everything.

Analyze financial aid awards

In a perfect world, you now have all of your kid’s acceptances and financial aid award letters. It’s time to analyze your awards.

The first thing to be aware of is, unfortunately, not all of the schools will send you award letters at the same time. Further, what if you are waitlisted or deferred? There can be some complex timing situations to navigate through.

To keep it relatively simple, what I generally advise is if you want to get the most free money from schools, you need to be patient and try to get all of the award letters you can so you can analyze all of the awards “apples to apples.”

The other complicating factor is that the award letters can be somewhat confusing, what I call “in a foreign language.” As I stated earlier, I consider financial aid to be free money you do not have to pay back. Unfortunately, colleges generally do not agree with me. Therefore, your financial aid package may include loans (that you or the student will have to pay back) and/or a campus job (where the student has to earn the money). Many prestigious schools do this, which is extremely disappointing as it may mislead you into making a huge mistake. So, be careful to identify which parts of the awards are actually free money (typically noted as grants or scholarships) vs. something else.

Assuming you are careful, another important task is to now compare the “true costs” of each school “side by side.” In effect, you want to come up with total cost of attendance (or sticker price, including “tooth-paste, laundry detergent, and an occasional pizza”), and then subtract the free money to come up with true costs “apples to apples.”

One thing I see way too often is a student gets accepted at a private school and receives the XYZ scholarship for $40K. The parent is so proud of this achievement and boasts about it around town. What may not be fully understood is that the scholarship is actually $40K for all four years combined, therefore only $10K per year. Let’s say another school awards the ABC scholarship for $120K; you quickly figure out that is $30K/year and still boast about it around town. What if the school’s sticker price is $80K, but the family did not realize that? Therefore, the true cost will actually be $50K ($80K minus $30K free) and the family budget was only $30–35K. That could be an unpleasant surprise once the bill is due!

College cost comparison sheet

Below is a sample view of a tool to help you analyze the true costs, plus out-of-pocket costs of each school, once you apply the financial aid awards to each school’s cost of attendance. The intent is to get a true “apples to apples” comparison of the schools’ net prices per year.

The following schedule will help you determine the true cost of each college, and which college award will provide the least out-of-pocket expense to your family. Record the total amount of each category (grants, loans, work study) for every award letter, and compare the results for each college.

…Then Negotiate

Did you know colleges would rather make a deal than have empty seats?

Doing a deal

Once you have a good idea of what kinds of schools are right for your student, you need to pick the schools that are acceptable to your student and that you can afford. If you have analyzed all of your financial aid awards using my suggested college cost comparison sheet from above, you should have a good idea what each school’s true cost is. Now let’s explore another huge opportunity—negotiating!

In normal economic times, when buying a car, do you pay sticker price or make a deal with the car dealer? The latter, right? Well, that same analogy is true for colleges.

Imagine I am the CFO at one of the schools you are targeting. Here are my priorities:

  • I need to pay the bills: professors, staff, utilities,
  • The worst thing for me is an empty seat (lack of students attending the school and paying the fees).
  • Therefore, I am willing to give a discount (in the form of financial aid) so your student comes.
  • Any revenue vs. $0 is good.
  • Plus, I’m willing to make a deal, i.e., negotiate.

Who knew? Therein lies another opportunity that the vast majority of families are missing and one of the reasons why I started this blog—don’t be scared off by the initial financial aid offer.

The negotiation process

How would you like to get even more of other people’s money? More free money from the schools themselves? The answer is to negotiate, for the following reasons:

  • Some schools mis-award (make mistakes).
  • Some schools under-award (on purpose).
  • Some schools are willing to match other schools’ awards.
  • You should know whether or not to accept the first award letter.
  • You should learn how to talk to the people in the financial aid office.

The negotiation process is an often overlooked and under-appreciated part of the college process. Schools are available and willing to discuss their offers with you. There are, at times, mistakes made, things over-looked, or circumstances that need to be explained. This is your opportunity to have a voice. The relatively small investment of time on your part could reap large rewards—even more free money.

Schools make mistakes. One situation I had with a client was a child had been accepted at a 100% need-based school with (at the time) a sticker price of $65K, and a need of $30K and the school did not offer them anything. If they did not know any better, they may have assumed, “Oh well, we did not get any help and therefore we cannot afford the school,” and, as a result, gone somewhere else that appeared to cost far less. In this case, with my guidance my client went through a negotiation process focusing on their confusion regarding their need-based aid policy. As a result, the school recognized their mistake and awarded them the $30K+! Do not let this happen to you.

Some schools will give you a low offer and hope you simply take it. Most people never bother to ask for more. Do not let that be you!

For example, IF you followed my separate advice on picking schools that will give you a great deal, you can use that offer to get more free money from your schools of choice. Why? Remember — if I am a CFO of a school, I do not want an empty seat; therefore, I am willing to make a deal!

Ultimately, the key is to learn how to talk to those people. I will provide more info on approaches and strategies in separate blog posts; also, I devote a whole chapter on how to negotiate in my new book, “Pay for College Without Going Broke!”

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