Answers to Common Questions about the FAFSA and CSS Profile

on October 4, 2017

Welcome to the start of the financial aid season.


October 1 kicked off the annual rite of passage for millions of families filing for financial aid.


If your child will be a college freshman or a returning student in the fall of 2018, you can apply for financial aid right now. You don’t have to wait.


Getting up to a 12-month head start on completing financial aid forms might seem like overkill, but it makes a tremendous amount of sense for you to complete the financial aid applications now rather than waiting.


Not sure about how the financial aid process works? No worries. Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about financial aid applications.


What financial aid applications must I file?


If you’re seeking financial aid, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which about 20 million students file each year.


Most private and public colleges and universities use the FAFSA exclusively. That means that they rely on the information you provide on the application to determine if you qualify for need-based financial aid from the following sources:

  • Federal government
  • Your state government
  • Colleges  

Will I only need to file the FAFSA?


Not necessarily. Some colleges, almost all private, believe that the FAFSA does not do a good enough job delving into a family’s finances.


These institutions turn to the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, which is a creation of the College Board, to ask additional questions. The PROFILE provides these colleges with a more detailed assessment of the financial wherewithal of their applicants.


The reason why PROFILE colleges also require the FAFSA is because they must use that application to determine if students are eligible for need-based aid through the federal and state programs.


How can I find out what colleges use the PROFILE?


Head to the website of the PROFILE and you’ll find the link to the list of participating colleges. 


What tax return will I need to complete the FAFSA and PROFILE?


Historically, families applied using their most recent tax return, but now everyone must use two-year-old tax returns. This allows the aid process to be a lot less rushed.


I heard that I should apply on October 1 or as soon as possible after that date. Is this true?


Every year you can submit the FAFSA and the PROFILE starting on October 1. Until 2016, you couldn’t submit the FAFSA until January 1 of a child’s senior year in high school.


There are many reasons why you should apply as soon as you can, even though the aid deadline for some colleges might not be until February or March.


Here are the big ones:

  1. Some colleges dispense their own need-based aid until it runs out. This can be particularly true with institutions that do rolling admissions. 
  2. Students who get their FAFSA submitted during the first three months typically get twice as much grant money as those who wait.
  3. About a dozen state aid programs, including those in Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Vermont and Washington, operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. When the money runs out, it’s gone for everybody else, no matter how financially deserving your family might be. Also, by not filing promptly, you can miss the aid deadline in your state.
  4. If you file early, you will have a chance of getting your financial aid award letters or notifications early. In reaction to the new aid starting line, a survey of colleges suggests that 80 percent of institutions sent out their award letters earlier.

Getting your aid awards early can help you make better decisions without being rushed. It can also prompt students to apply to additional colleges if the early awards are disappointing. And it gives families additional time to appeal financial aid offers that fall short.


If I won’t qualify for financial aid, should I apply?


It depends. Many people assume that they won’t get aid, but the majority of students would have qualified for some type of aid if they had just applied. About 20 percent of undergraduates, according to a federal government analysis, are not filing for financial aid.


You shouldn’t assume that you won’t qualify for financial aid without using the College Board’s Expected Family Contribution calculator.


After inputting information about your assets and income into the tool, the calculator will give you a rough idea of what any college will expect you to pay, at a minimum, for one year of college. If your EFC, which is expressed as a dollar figure, is higher than the cost of the colleges on your list, then there generally will be no point in applying.


You also can get a sense as to how much a college might cost by using its net price calculator.


You will want to apply, however, if you or your child would like to borrow through the federal college loan programs. And here’s one more reason – it’s not common, but some colleges require students to apply for financial aid to qualify for merit scholarships.

If my child is self-supporting and is no longer living at home, can he/she file the aid forms as an independent student?


A lot of parents would love their children to be considered independent because these applicants only have to report their own income and assets on aid application forms. And obviously those are almost always going to be lower.


Many years ago, however, the federal government made it extremely difficult for traditional undergrads to qualify as independent. Your child would have to answer yes to at least one of a series of questions including these:

  • Are you at least 24 years of age?
  • Are you married?
  • Are you in the military or a veteran?
  • Are you seeking a graduate or professional school degree?

Where do I find the FAFSA and the PROFILE?


You’ll find the FAFSA on the U.S. Department of Education’s website at Don’t be fooled by copycat websites that charge fees to complete the FAFSA. The FAFSA is a free form.


The CSS Profile can be completed at You may have to pay a fee to file the CSS Profile form and to send it to colleges.


How much do these aid applications cost?


As the name suggests, filing the FAFSA is free. If you are asked for credit-card info, you are not on the government site.


The PROFILE costs $25 for the initial application and college report and additional reports are $16 each.


The College Board grants fee waivers automatically based on information that the family includes on the PROFILE. The waiver covers the application fee and reporting fees for up to eight colleges.


How long will it take to complete these applications?


The College Board estimates that it will take parents 45 minutes to two hours to complete the PROFILE. The U.S. Department of Education estimates it will take 30 minutes to complete the FAFSA, but an hour is probably more realistic.


What if I have questions when I’m working on the FAFSA and PROFILE?


Help is a call away. Here is the contact information:

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

Can I get Into...

We Know Your Chances. Do You?

What Are My Chances