The cost of college is a scary thing. It can be challenging knowing how to put together a budget to foot the cost. Financial aid can be a huge help with this. And when you’re applying for financial aid, your most critical step in the process is filing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

How important is FAFSA? Well, if you want to qualify for student loans, work-study jobs on campus, or federal financial aid (like a Pell Grant), the FAFSA is mandatory. What’s more, universities and community colleges will look at your FAFSA when determining whether to issue a scholarship or other monetary award.

As a homeschool parent preparing your student for college, here’s the simple truth: You need to get familiar with the FAFSA. We’ve assembled a simple guide that will help you get started. Let’s jump in!

Fill out the FAFSA online

Most university financial aid offices offer paper FAFSA forms. Instead of filling those out, though, it’s much faster to do it all online. You’ll get a response sooner, in a matter of days. Paper form responses can take weeks. Filling out the online form can also help you avoid leaving any entries blank.

The federal government offers some free, handy video tips for FAFSA filing here. Here are a few of them:

  • List yourself as “homeschooled” on the form.
  • Fill in up to ten colleges of choice on your FAFSA (don’t worry, you can list additional schools later).
  • Wait to receive your Student Aid Report, which will give you a breakdown of what kind of financial aid you qualify for—and how much your family will be responsible for.

Filing a FAFSA doesn’t lock you into a particular college

Submitting a FAFSA for a university you’re considering doesn’t mean you’re committing to attending there. It’s actually more like a pre-qualifying process—filling out the FAFSA gives you the ability to get a student loan, but you’re not taking out the loan yet. Getting a student loan is a step you’ll take closer to enrollment.

As a homeschool parent, if you’re worried about submitting the FAFSA, remember that this step simply helps you qualify for loans, potential federal grants, and scholarships in case your student needs them. It’s important to file this form on time so you don’t miss out in financial help.

You can report your family’s income from two years prior

The FAFSA process is set up in such a way that you don’t need to wait for last year’s tax return before you begin filling out your form. FAFSA requests income information based on what they call Prior-Prior Year Income.

If you have a high school senior in the class of 2020 and you complete the FAFSA in October 2019, you can report your household income and other relevant information about your family’s taxes from 2017 on the application. Once your family receives its most recent tax return, the FAFSA can auto-update that information once it has been submitted.

Submit your FAFSA as early as possible

If you’re filing the FAFSA for the 2020 school year, for example, you may begin the process on October 1, 2019. Scholarships and awards are available first-come, first served, so it’s to your benefit to complete the form as early as possible.  

  • FAFSA applications are open from October through June of the following year.
  • Filling out the form takes about half an hour, on average.
  • Check with the universities and community colleges you’re applying to. Some of them may require a completed FAFSA prior to the federal closing date in June.

Don’t leave any fields blank

Put a zero in any field that isn’t applicable to you, and make sure to fill in every blank on the form. It’s also incredibly important to double-check everything you filled out before you submit. It’s easy to mistype names, addresses, and Social Security numbers.

Use caution before filing independently

If you file as independent on your FAFSA, you could actually disqualify yourself for financial assistance that you may be approved for otherwise. There’s a common misconception that students whose parents no longer claim them as dependents on taxes can qualify for more money. That’s not the case. In fact, they may be leaving money on the table. This blog post contains more detailed information about when and why a student should file as independent on the FAFSA.

File a FAFSA renewal for each year you’re enrolled

As your student goes through his or her college career, you’ll need to file a FAFSA renewal every year to continue receiving financial assistance. Even universities that award their own grants (separate from federal grants) require an annual FAFSA filing.

If your family doesn’t qualify for financial aid for your student’s freshman year, check with your college’s financial aid department to find out if you’ll need to continue filing after year one.

Fill out a separate FAFSA for state assistance

If you’d like to qualify for additional opportunities for scholarships or financial aid from your state, there are links to state tuition assistance organizations on your FAFSA. Some states have programs that require you to file a separate FAFSA.

If you want to increase your chances of qualifying for financial aid or a state scholarship, submit your FAFSA to these organizations as early as possible. The earlier you turn it in, the more likely you are to be awarded assistance.

Remember to research your financial assistance options

Although the FAFSA is an essential step to getting financial aid for college, there are more bases to cover. Research your scholarship options, including the scholarships and forms of financial assistance offered by each college your student applies to.

In addition to federal financial aid, it’s possible to get:

  • State scholarships.
  • Scholarships or grants from colleges.
  • Grants or scholarships based on study emphasis or academics.
  • Independently-awarded scholarships like the National Merit Scholarship.

You can apply for a CSS Profile™ for financial aid, which will help you identify other means of financial assistance your student might qualify for. And, the U.S. Department of Education has additional resources here.

With the right combination of information-gathering, persistence, and timely FAFSA filing, you’ll be well on your way to lowering your family’s college costs over the next few years. Good luck!