The gateway to college financial help is a 10-page form full of questions about family status and income. At first glance, the FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — can seem dense and intimidating. Are high school seniors really supposed to know the total net worth of their parents’ real estate investments, an actual question on page 7?

Don’t fret. The FAFSA isn’t nearly as daunting as it may first seem. The result could be a financial aid package, composed potentially of federal, state and institutional funds, that lowers one of the biggest barriers to a college education.

So make the FAFSA your friend by using these seven tips recommended by Bryan Erslan, Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships at Eastern Kentucky University, which offers 180 undergraduate options — including unique fields of study like aviation and fire investigation — and an average class size of 25.

1. Fill It Out Online

Erslan’s first recommendation is going to studentaid.ed.gov for online access to the FAFSA. Filling out the form online allows families to take advantage of the site’s editing tools and avoid many of the common mistakes that befall those who complete the form by hand.

New this year is the ability to fill out the FAFSA via the federal Department of Education’s myStudentAid mobile app. “I’ve heard pretty good response from folks that they like they feel of it,” Erslan says.

2. Use Data Retrieval

Another benefit of filling out the FAFSA online: accessing an IRS data retrieval tool that allows families to upload needed financial information directly from their tax returns. For the 2019-20 school year, the tax information pulled would be from 2017, Erslan notes. The IRS data retrieval tool is not available if parents are married and filing separately, since only one tax return can be accessed.

3. Don’t Go It Alone

The student may be the one heading to college, but given the type of financial information FAFSA asks for, students shouldn’t try to complete it all on their own. “I always encourage the family to work on it together that first year if they have the support. If not, there are a lot of resources, either through local financial aid offices or the high schools, to help students fill out that FAFSA form,” Erslan says. “Once you get through it that first time, it really becomes much easier.”

4. Avoid Common Mistakes

Working in the EKU financial aid office, Erslan sees many common mistakes made on FAFSA forms. Occasionally there’s a missing parent signature. Students sometimes don’t take full advantage of the number of colleges and universities they can have their information sent to — the FAFSA allows for up to 10. And students sometimes include financial information for the wrong people. It gets even more complicated when parents are divorced.

5. Get It Filed Early

Students can begin filling out the FAFSA in October of their senior year of high school. While Eastern Kentucky does not have a deadline, Erslan recommends that students have the form submitted by Christmas to ensure they’re eligible for as much funding as possible.

“Where students might run into difficulty is, many times with the need based state programs, the Kentucky College Access Program (CAP) Grant runs out of funds sometimes during the year,” he says.

6. Don’t Make Assumptions

“We encourage all families to fill it out at least one time and see what you might qualify for,” Erslan says. “Parents don't always know what all the options are.”

Looking for more help in filling out the FAFSA, or assistance in reviewing it before it’s submitted? The Office of Student Financial Assistance at Eastern Kentucky University is available to help. The office is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and can be reached via an online form, by email at finaid@eku.edu, or by calling (859) 622-2361.