Applying for Financial Aid? Here’s What You Might Need Besides FAFSA

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There’s a lot to think about when you’re considering that dream college, but did you remember to apply for financial aid? 

If you replied, “yeeeees (mom), I remembered to fill out the FAFSA.” That’s great. But did you remember to submit your CSS Profile?

Wait — the what?

Maybe there are still a few things you can learn — including why submitting a CSS Profile could save you thousands on student loans.

What Is a CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile, short for the College Scholarship Service Profile, is an online application for non-federal financial aid created by the College Board, the organization you probably already know for its SAT and Advanced Placement programs. 

The CSS Profile is used by nearly 400 public and private educational institutions — here’s the list of colleges that require a CSS Profile for financial aid.

Pro Tip

If your college requires a CSS Profile, you’ll find a link to the College Board site, but you may have to dig: Look for the link among the general financial aid forms.

If you see your college of choice on the list and this is the first time you’re hearing of the CSS Profile, don’t panic. We have everything you need to know about it — including how it differs from the FAFSA (aka Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

CSS vs. FAFSA: Do I Need to Fill Out Both? 

In a word: Yes. 

Depending on the college, the CSS Profile may be used to determine if you qualify for the institution’s own grants, loans and scholarships, which can be essential for covering the costs of the pricier private and elite public colleges (and if you take a closer look at the list, you’ll notice that a lot of private colleges and ultra-selective public schools use the CSS Profile). 

You may still be able to qualify for federal aid if you only fill out the FAFSA — that depends on the school’s policy — but you definitely won’t qualify for the college’s own financial aid without a CSS Profile.

“If a university requires the FAFSA and the CSS profile — and a lot of these universities will have have their own financial aid form, too — if you don’t check all the boxes off, then they just don’t make you an offer,” said Jamie Dickenson, a Certified Educational Planner at Jamie Dickenson, LLC. “And most families have never even heard of the CSS profile.”

Pro Tip

Before applying for financial aid, set up an email account that both the student and parents can access so no one misses messages about deadlines and other essential info.

Why do colleges need both? It has to do with calculating your family contribution. The CSS Profile uses institutional methodology to calculate your estimated family contribution (EFC), while the FAFSA uses federal methodology. 

Institutional methodology is much more comprehensive and complex, incorporating a lot more details about your (and your parents’) financial information.

“The problem is there is not a calculator or an estimator for the institutional method, and every university does it different, and they will not reveal how they do it,” Dickenson said. 

She added that the differences between FAFSA’s estimated family contribution and the CSS Profiles can be “vastly different.” 

How Do I Submit a CSS Profile?

The only option for submitting your CSS Profile is to do so online at the College Board site

To log in, you’ll use the College Board account you used to view your PSAT, SAT or AP scores. If you don’t have a login, you can create an account on the College Board site. 

What Documents Do I Need?

The College Board recommends that you have the following documents from both you and your parents:

  1. Tax returns.

    You’ll need the previous two years of tax returns. So if you’re applying for 2020-21 financial aid, you’ll need your and your parents’ 2018 and 2019 tax returns.

  2. W-2 forms for the current year.

    You’ll also need to submit records of any untaxed income for the current and previous tax year.

  3. Records of savings, trusts and other investments.

    Among the documents you’ll need to submit are current bank statements and mortgage information.

Additionally, you’ll need to submit information about vehicles and pensions, as well as a balance sheet if you or your parents own a business, according to Dickenson.

“They’re always there looking for hidden assets on the CSS,” she said. “They’re looking for disposable money — where you could borrow from.” 

When you’re finished, double check the accuracy of the information on your application. You cannot change your answers after submitting your initial application.

The College Board will report your Profile to the colleges you’ve specified once you’ve submitted your application and payment. You can check on its progress — including messages about any missing documentation — on the dashboard.

What If My Parents Are Divorced or Separated?

If your parents are divorced or separated, you should complete your application with your custodial parent’s information first. 

You’ll need to list all your parents and step-parents on your CSS Profile application, and your noncustodial parent will need to create a College Board account and fill out their own form. 

If you don’t have contact with one of your parents, you can submit a CSS Profile Waiver Request for the noncustodial parent to each of the colleges you are applying to.

How Much Does it Cost?

Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile has an application fee of $25 — and a fee of $16 for each additional report if you want to submit your profile to more than one school.

Pro Tip

A limited number of colleges provide Fee Payment Codes that cover the application costs — contact your school’s financial aid office to ask if they provide codes.

It’s possible to qualify for low-income fee waiver. Any student who used an SAT fee waiver, whose parents income is approximately $45K or less or who is an orphan or a ward of the court is eligible. 

If you do qualify, you’ll be notified once your application is complete but before you submit it. 

When’s the Deadline?

The CSS Profile application period opens the same day as FAFSA — Oct. 1 before the start of the school year for which you’re applying (so if you’re applying for financial aid for the 2020-21 school year, the application period opened Oct. 1, 2019). 

Pro Tip

Set a reminder to submit your CSS Profile at least three weeks before your school’s deadline — just in case the college requests additional financial info you have to track down.

Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile deadline depends on the college, so you’ll need to check with your school for its deadline. And if you’re applying to multiple schools that each require a CSS Profile, you’ll need to track the deadlines for each of them. 

Consider it your first college course: Time Management 101.

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. Read her bio and other work here, then catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.