There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). You may have heard that it’s long, hard to fill out or a waste of time. But nothing could be further from the truth. “The time required to complete it is minimal, but the potential rewards are great,” says Rick Shipman, executive director of financial aid at Michigan State University.

In fact, financial aid officers strongly encourage all families, regardless of their financial situation, to fill out the form since most people qualify for some aid. If you think completing the FAFSA isn’t the right move for you, you may be falling for these common myths. Read on for a breakdown of common FAFSA misconceptions and expert opinions on why you shouldn’t believe them.

Myth #1: “I don’t need to fill out the FAFSA because my family won’t qualify for aid.”

“One of the most common misconceptions about the FAFSA that families and students have is that they won’t qualify for aid,” says Allie Arcese, a spokesperson for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “The FAFSA is not just a way to determine how much federal student aid you’ll receive. State governments and some colleges and universities use information from the FAFSA to determine what state and institutional aid you qualify for.” The FAFSA is also used by the government to determine federal student loan eligibility. Shipman adds, “Some scholarships that are not based on financial need may use data from the FAFSA.” Even if your family doesn’t qualify for certain forms of aid, the FAFSA is a key factor in several elements of a college payment plan.

Myth #2: “It’s long and hard to fill out.”

“Many families believe that the FAFSA is very complicated with difficult questions, requiring hours of time to complete,” says Shipman. “Those are old ideas from the FAFSA that used to be paper-based and required you to read and respond to every question. The new FAFSA on the web is smart. It only presents questions that are relevant to you, based on what you have already entered. And what people feel is the most difficult part — filling in their income and taxes paid — is now automated. The IRS directly transfers federal tax return data to the FAFSA, if the family allows it. Not only does that transfer take a weight off the shoulders of families completing the form, but it means the data is accurate.” 

Myth #3: “Only families that earn under a certain amount should fill out the FAFSA.”

There’s no income cap on who can complete the FAFSA, and when it comes to aid decisions, income isn’t the only factor used in the calculation. “Household size, number of children in college, student and parent income, as well as student and parent assets are all considered. There is not a magic number for ‘if you make less than this amount, you will qualify for a Pell Grant’ due to all of the factors that are part of the calculation,” says Darcy Johnson, president of the Kansas Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. In addition, Johnson recommends that families with high annual incomes should also fill out the FAFSA to facilitate the process should an unforeseen event occur. “If a family suffers a severe financial setback once school begins,” she explains, “having a FAFSA on file makes it much easier and quicker for the school to reevaluate financial aid eligibility and make necessary changes.”

Myth #4: “I shouldn’t fill out the FAFSA until I’ve decided which school I want to attend.”

The FAFSA becomes available each year on October 1, and you should fill it out as soon as possible, even before you start applying to schools. “The sooner you [complete the FAFSA], the better, as state grant agencies and scholarship organizations often have a limited pot of funds to give out. And they do it on a first-come, first-served basis,” says Arcese. And keep an eye out for different due dates: There are both federal and state deadlines as well as specific deadlines set by the colleges to which you’re applying. Completing the FAFSA early ensures that you won’t miss important deadlines.

The myths about the FAFSA are just that: myths. “There really is no downside to filing the FAFSA,” says Shipman. For less than an hour of your time, it could save your family a lot of money in the long run.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.    

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2020.