How to avoid common financial aid mistakes

Soaring student debt, it’s a hot topic. Every presidential candidate is talking about it and that’s because the average debt of a senior graduating from college is nearly $30,000. That figure is even more frightening since many families are able to send their children to state universities and incur no debt at all, so for the average debt to be $30,000 that means that there are thousands of students graduating with over $100,000 in loans.

Yes, it’s true the financial aid forms can be intimidating, but here are a few tips to help you avoid the most common mistakes.

  1. Not filling out the FAFSA. The FAFSA is the trigger to financial aid. It may not surprising, but the single biggest mistake is not filling out the forms because you assume you won’t receive any aid.

Scholarship Advisor ( conducted a survey among families with high school seniors and it found that 53 percent of eligible families did not bother applying for aid through the FAFSA. This can be a very costly misconception.

Abigail Seldin, CEO at Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, believes that “everyone should fill out the FAFSA, because everyone is eligible for some form of financial aid, no matter their circumstances.” She also shared that many colleges offer merit-based aid, that isn’t based on financial need, but “you can’t get it if you don’t fill out the form.” However, this is not true of all colleges. Many colleges and universities will award merit-aid without seeing the FAFSA.

  1. Careless errors and omissions. It has been reported that over 80 percent of submitted FAFSAs contain at least one error. One example is that money in a retirement account WON’T count against you, but money in a checking account WILL. This difference can obviously have a huge impact on your final EFC – Expected Family Contribution. Also, make sure to fill in all the fields of the form. If a question doesn’t apply to you, fill in with a “0” or “not applicable.”
  2. The FAFSA is a student form. Even though parents are typically filling out the form, the questions are directed to the students. Keep in mind that the CSS Profile, an additional financial aid form that is required by many private colleges and universities, is directed to the parents.

Financial aid resources:

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;