Advice on Filing the FAFSA and Establishing Your EFC

The Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) is what your family is expected to contribute to the cost of a college education. It is important to note that this is not what you think you can contribute; it’s what Uncle Sam thinks you can contribute. This amount, as you would probably expect, may or may not have any relationship to what you think is realistic.

In order to establish your EFC and to be eligible for any type of financial aid from the federal government, state governments, or from the college or university itself, families must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA, which is located online at www.fafsa.ed.gov, and is filed yearly.

As the name implies, the FAFSA is free to file. If you are being asked to pay in order to file, you are in the wrong place.

You can submit this form beginning January 1st of the year in which the student will attend college. For example, if you are planning on attending college in the fall of 2014, you cannot file the FAFSA prior to January 1, 2014.

Only one FAFSA is filed, even if you are applying to multiple schools. A section of the FAFSA will ask you what institutions you want the FAFSA sent to. You should send this to all schools you have applied to as well as any schools that might be your last minute fall backs. The schools will not prepare a financial aid package until you are accepted, and unlike college applications, it costs you nothing to list them on the FAFSA.

Per this tip from Inside Higher Ed, you will want to add the schools in alphabetical order, so that the colleges cannot infer attendance preference and offer packages (or admission) accordingly.

NOTE: Do not wait until you get an acceptance letter before you apply for financial aid. Deadlines set by the colleges are vital to getting money, especially grant aid.

It is significantly easier to file this application if you have already completed your tax return. Much of the FAFSA simply becomes a matter of looking up the referenced line on your taxes and filling in the blanks. In fact, if your tax return has already been processed by the IRS, it will even fill in the information for you, which you can then simply verify with your hard copy of the filed taxes. Sounds easy, right?

But wait – didn’t we just stress how important it is to file the FAFSA in a timely fashion each year?

And there’s the one little gotcha.

Most colleges and universities have deadlines for when they want the FAFSA. Many schools need the FAFSA by March 1, and some, especially the private schools, often have deadlines in February!

For many families, getting their taxes completed that early can be a challenge. However, to maximize the potential for financial aid at any college you apply to, you will definitely want to meet the deadline set by the school. This is a crucial component to ensuring you qualify for every opportunity available.

How can you do this? By filing an estimated FAFSA.

Filing the Estimated FAFSA

Facts and Fiction about Financial Aid
Facts and Fiction about Financial Aid

Pull your last completed tax return and your income information through the end of the year, and simply replace the old information with what you know happened in the recent year. So, if you are filing in February of 2014 and have not yet completed your 2013 taxes, you will take your 2012 taxes and pull together as much information you have for 2013, and then ‘replace’ the tax line information they are asking for with the updated info. There’s even an Income Estimator tool available if you need help.

The government will calculate your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) based on these estimated numbers and the college or university will compile a financial aid package based on this as well. Once you have your taxes completed, it is a relatively painless process to update the FAFSA with the actual numbers.

Is that it? Are there other forms to file? What happens if you have special financial circumstances that might make the EFC inaccurate? We'll cover these topics in upcoming installments in this series. Or, you can download our free ebook and find out everything you need to know to improve your understanding of financial aid and get the college discounts and results you really want.