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Even in the best of circumstances, applying for college financial aid can be a daunting task. But this year many students are facing a new obstacle: They’re being asked to submit additional documentation before they can get financial aid money.

To apply for financial aid, you must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which has more than 100 questions about your family's finances and demographics. Filing the FAFSA is generally required in order to receive federal loans and grants, as well as aid awarded by states, colleges, and some scholarship programs.

Some students began submitting applications in October 2017, the earliest possible date, for the 2018-2019 school year. But others wait until they’ve been admitted to schools before filing a FAFSA.

In past years, about 1 out of 3 FAFSA applications have been selected for what's known as verification, an audit-like process to prove the information provided is correct. This means that in order to receive an aid offer, you have to fill out more forms and submit additional documentation to each school.   

The Spike in Verifications

A 1-in-3 chance of an audit may seem high—but last fall the audit rate surged even higher. Many colleges reported double-digit increases in verification rates.

At some schools 50 percent or more of filers were being selected, according to a November survey by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).

Some colleges reported more FAFSA verifications in the last few months of 2017 than they had in the entire previous application year.

More on Paying For College

The Department of Education says the auditing spike was due to changes in the financial aid process in the prior academic year, including an earlier filing deadline and a temporary glitch in the IRS Data Retrieval tool, both of which led to unusual filing patterns. That threw off the algorithm that is used for the selection process and is based on previous student filing behaviors. 

The good news is that the verification rate has returned to normal levels. The change came after NASFAA and many of the colleges who reported spikes in verification flagged the issue to the Department of Education late last year. In response, the agency investigated and adjusted the algorithm.

The Costly Delays of Verification

Even under normal circumstances, however, FAFSA verification can be a high-stakes and often slow-moving process. With $120 billion in federal college aid being allocated each year, the Department of Education wants to make sure that colleges are stringent about providing money to qualified students. As a result, the vetting process, which the college runs, can take weeks or months. 

For students being audited, verification delays make it more difficult to compare offers and figure out which schools are a good financial fit. “You won’t know what it will really cost you to go to a school until your financial aid package is completed and verified,” says Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis at NASFAA.

Delays may also cause you to miss out on valuable aid. While most schools don’t require a decision on whether you’ll attend until early May, many states and colleges have winter deadlines for financial aid, or they award financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis. Any hold-up in your FAFSA means you could be shut out of that aid pool.

The verification process can be hardest on those who need the aid most. This group includes first-generation students, who don’t have family experience applying to college, as well as those from lower-income families. In a typical year, 56 percent of students who are eligible for income-based federal Pell Grants get flagged for verification, according to the National College Access Network (NCAN), a nonprofit that advocates for ways to improve college completion rates.

How to Avoid Verification Problems

There's no way to completely dodge the risk of being selected for verification. Some people are selected at random and some schools (typically smaller colleges that give out a lot of aid from their own endowments) verify 100 percent of people who apply for aid. Still, there are ways to lower your chances, as well as streamline the process. Here's what to do:

Double-check your FAFSA. Make sure the information you provide is consistent throughout the application. Also, be precise—don’t use estimates—and don’t leave any lines blank if you don’t know the answer. You can cut down on mistakes if you use the IRS Data Retrieval tool which automatically imports information from your tax returns to the FAFSA. 

Stay on top of communications. After you file your FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) from the Department of Education that gives you basic information about your eligibility for financial aid. If you are selected for verification, there will be an asterisk next to your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) figure on the SAR. You will also get an email notification from each school that accepts you, not the Department of Education.

Prepare your paperwork. Even if your odds of being audited are low, it makes sense to have your supporting documents organized ahead of time. That includes ordering a tax transcript, which will include additional information you file with your tax return, such as a schedule listing certain incomes and deductions. You can get your tax transcript free online or request it by mail through the IRS’s Get Transcript service at irs.gov/transcript.

Laura Irene Sosa, a college counselor at two high schools in Houston, tells all her students to order a tax transcript immediately after filing their FAFSA. “Verification is a lengthy process and you need to be ready,” says Sosa, who says 80 percent of the 320 seniors at her schools have been flagged for verification so far.

Respond quickly. If you do get selected for verification, don’t wait to respond. Schools have tight deadlines for delivering this documentation—if you miss that deadline, you may not get any federal financial aid.

Every school has a different verification process, so check your student portal online to find out what you'll need to provide. Under the financial aid tab, you’ll see a list of the requested documents—you may only be asked fill out a verification worksheet or you may need to supply documents such as a W-2, proof of the number of people in your household already enrolled in college, child support payments, or a tax transcript.

Get help. If you are selected for verification and have questions, work with your school’s financial aid office. If you are a senior in high school applying for aid for the first time, talk with your guidance counselor. You can also get help from counselors at nonprofit organizations such as Reach Higher or by contacting the Federal Student Aid office. You can call 800-4-FED-AID (800-433-3243) with questions, or check out explanatory videos on the office’s YouTube channel.

If you haven’t filed your FAFSA yet, the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office hosts an #AskFAFSA session on Twitter from 5 to 6 p.m. Eastern time on the last Wednesday of each month. A different topic is featured each month related to financial aid. Archived transcripts of the question-and-answer sessions are posted at Storify.com/FAFSA.