FAFSA, CSS Profile, IDOC, Oh My: A Guide to Financial Aid
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Between all of your application deadlines, your senior year coursework and graduation excitement, it’s easy to lose track of financial aid. Staying on top of your financial aid is easier than it seems, as long as you know what steps you need to complete. That’s why we’ve created a guide to walk you through some of the most important financial aid forms you need to know about, so you can enjoy your senior year and know how you’re paying for college.
What is Financial Aid?
Financial aid is a catch-all term for anything that helps you cover the cost of college without using your own money. This includes things like scholarships (both merit and need-based), grants, work-study, and student loans. Student loans are considered a form of financial aid because you’re using the lender’s money to pay for college, even though you’ll have to pay it back once you graduate college.
Most students aim to avoid loans cover the cost of college, which is why scholarships are so popular. Any type of financial aid that you don’t have to pay back simply means less stress and worry after college, but it’s not the end of the world if you need take out a loan for school.
To qualify for any type of financial aid (student loans included), you often need to fill out different forms at the federal, state, and institutional level. Filling out the forms doesn’t take long, but you need to remember deadlines so that you can maximize your award amount.
We’ll be covering the main financial aid forms in this post, but for a more in-depth explanation, check out our post How to Afford College: Exploring Your Options.
FAFSA: An Overview
The FAFSA is the one form that every college student should complete. FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and it’s administered by the Federal Student Aid Office in the Department of Education. This form determines your eligibility for grants, work-study, and student loans, and is often used by schools to award you additional funding based on your financial need.
Grants are need-based awards which you don’t have to pay back. The amount you receive depends on the college you go to and how much financial need your family has. These can be offered federally (Pell Grants), or by your school.
Work-study is an arrangement where you work for your school to reduce the cost of attendance. The idea is that your income will be going right back into covering the cost of school, such as your meals, transportation, books, or other expenses. We’ve gone over work-study in-depth in our post Federal Work-Study: What You Need to Know.
The FAFSA also determines if you’re eligible for student loans—most students are, but the question is how much? Like the Pell Grant, the amount is determined by the college you plan to attend and your financial need.
There is also federal aid specifically for members of the military, veterans, or their family members, but you must fill out the FAFSA to receive it.
The deadline to complete the FAFSA is June 30 for fall semester. For example, if you are starting college in Fall 2019, the deadline to complete the FAFSA is June 30, 2019. That said, most schools require that you complete the FAFSA much earlier than that, especially if they use it to award additional aid.
How to Apply Using FAFSA
1. Before starting the application, gather the following documents:
- Your tax return, or if you’re a dependent, your parent/guardian’s tax return(s)
- Any W-2s for your household
- Bank statements or records of investment
- Any other records of income
- Your social security or alien registration number
2. Create an FSA ID. You, as the student entering college, need to do this—not your parent/guardian, and you may not share an FSA ID with them. Each FSA ID is unique to that individual, just like the social security number.
3. Fill out the form as early as possible. The FAFSA application opens on October 1 of each year and you can use the tax information from earlier that year. You will need to provide all of your income information and household information.
4. Once you have completed the form, you should receive confirmation that the form was submitted either by email or snail mail as a Student Aid Report (SAR). This will include your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) based on your household income.
After you’ve completed the form, the FAFSA will be sent to all the institutions you listed on your application and the corresponding state higher education agencies. The schools and state(s) will make the final determination about which awards you receive, based on the institution you choose to attend. Some examples of state agencies that require you to complete the FAFSA before you can apply for additional scholarships include California and the Cal Grant and Florida and the Bright Futures Scholarship.
Normally the longest part of completing the FAFSA is gathering all of the required documentation, but sometimes you can run into complications. We’ve compiled 5 Time-Saving Tips for Completing the FAFSA so you can finish this form before you’ve sent in most of your college applications.
CSS Profile: An Overview
The CSS Profile is administered by College Board, which is the same organization that handles the SAT and AP exams. You’ll need a lot of the same documents you needed for the FAFSA to fill out the CSS Profile, including tax returns, W-2s, and and other records of income. While the FAFSA awards federal aid, the CSS Profile awards institution-based aid.
With the FAFSA, if you don’t qualify for a Pell grant or work-study, you will probably only qualify for loans, which can leave many students feeling discouraged. However, schools that use the CSS profile are often offer additional funding to students who didn’t qualify for those types of aid, reducing the need to take out a loan.
The CSS Profile is used by over 400 colleges, and many require that students submit the CSS Profile in order to be eligible for any type of aid at their institution. However, unlike the FAFSA which is free, the CSS Profile costs $25 to submit the first application, and $16 for each additional school. There are fee waivers available if you qualified for the SAT fee waiver.
The CSS Profile doesn’t replace the FAFSA, even though the information is largely the same. In fact, schools that require the CSS Profile require it in addition to the FAFSA.
The deadline for the CSS Profile is determined by the college, so review their admissions website to make sure that you don’t miss out on any aid. College Board suggests that you submit the CSS Profile with your application, or even a week before. Many selective schools use the CSS Profile, so be sure to check whether those on your list do.
IDOC: An Overview
IDOC stands for Institutional Documentation Service, and it’s also administered by College Board. While the CSS Profile and the FAFSA take your information and they then send a report to the college, the IDOC allows you to directly submit documentation to schools through their secure portal.
You can create a FAFSA or CSS Profile on your own initiative, but IDOC requires that schools select you to participate. It’s usually based on if you’ve sent test scores, a CSS Profile, or other documentation to that school already. You’ll be notified that you’ve been selected to participate in IDOC through your College Board/CSS Profile account, as well as any method of communication the school uses.
Schools that use IDOC will say so on their admissions website; as will the CSS Profile, many Ivy Leagues and other top schools require use IDOC. For example, Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, CalTech, MIT, and Stanford all use both of these forms. College Board provides a full list of schools that use the CSS Profile or IDOC.
You may not want to overly rely on federal, state and institutional aid to cover the cost of college. This is where private scholarships, many of which are merit-based, come into play.
Private scholarships are awarded either by privately-owned companies or non-profit organizations. Each of these have a unique combination of requirements, deadlines, and application process, so you’ll want to pay close attention to the specifics of each one.
To get started, you may want to talk to your school counselor. Many school counselors have resources for finding scholarships or know of local opportunities, and they’d be happy to help you work on these applications. We’ve also compiled a few lists to help you out:
- 20 Scholarships with February Deadlines
- 12 Community Service Scholarships for Students Who Give Back
- 15 College Scholarships for High School Juniors
- The Coca-Cola Scholarship: How to Apply and What You Need to Know
Wrapping it Up
Financial aid requires close attention to requirements and deadlines so you can cover as much of your college costs without loans. We covered some of the forms used nationally, but remember that your state’s department of education might also award aid, and that there are private scholarships you can apply for as well.
Check out these posts to learn more about financial aid and scholarships:
- What’s a Federal Pell Grant? Here’s What You Need to Know.
- Getting a Head Start on Your Scholarship Search
- Parents: 12 Must-Know College Financial Aid Terms
- Understanding College Costs: FAQs About Financial Aid in Practice
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