The CSS Profile: Your Secret Weapon for Scoring More College Aid

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Getting the results from my Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was one of the most disappointing moments in my young adult life. I was sure our modest family income would qualify me for grants, but it didn’t. At the time, however, I wasn’t familiar with the CSS Profile, an application for aid that could have opened the door to additional, non-federal financial aid.

If your college is one of the nearly 400 schools that uses the CSS Profile as part of the financial aid process, you may have access to more aid than what the federal government provides. Here’s everything you need to know about the CSS Profile, including:

What is the CSS Profile?
The CSS Profile deadline
CSS Profile tips and tricks
CSS Profile questions that might trip you up
The CSS Profile — lots of pros, few cons

What is the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile is a financial aid application that you fill out through the College Board. While the FAFSA is an application for aid from the federal government, the CSS Profile is an application for aid directly from colleges and from scholarship programs.

In many ways, the CSS Profile and the FAFSA are similar — so similar, in fact, that it might make sense to complete both around the same time. Here’s a breakdown of what they have in common:

  • Both applications make you eligible for college grants and loans.
  • The CSS Profile, like the FAFSA, is available on October 1 each year.
  • The earlier you file, the better, as some aid available through each application is awarded on a first-come, first served basis.
  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC) plays a role in the amount of aid you can receive for both. You can get an idea of your EFC by using this EFC calculator from the College Board.

But here’s how they’re different:

  • The FAFSA puts you in the running for federal aid; the CSS Profile puts you in the running for institutional aid.
  • Although both forms require similar information, the CSS Profile asks for more in-depth information about your parents’ finances.
  • You pay nothing to fill out the FAFSA, whereas the CSS Profile comes with a $25 fee and an additional $16 fee for each school you add. (It’s possible to get a fee waiver, however, depending on your family’s income.)

The CSS Profile deadline

Deadlines for the CSS Profile vary by school and program. The application is available starting on October 1, and the College Board website recommends starting your CSS Profile application at least two weeks before your first school or scholarship program application due date.

CSS Profile tips and tricks

Not all colleges take part in this program. But if you’re applying to one or more colleges that do participate, you’ll add each school to the CSS Profile application.

Given the investment ($16 per school), you might be tempted to add only your top-choice college to the application. But you likely can’t predict which school will offer you the most aid. One school could have a larger budget for aid than another, and you could miss out if you don’t submit a CSS Profile to the school. Investing the money to see what aid you qualify for may be worth the cost.

To complete the application, you’ll first need to register with the College Board. You’ll also want to have the following financial documents handy (both yours and your parents’):

  • Most recent tax return
  • W-2 forms and any other records of income from the current year
  • Current bank statements
  • Records of assets

Once you have your documents ready and you register for an account, you can start your application. After you sign-up on the site, you can add more colleges any time.

You can receive an application fee waiver if you’re an orphan or a ward of the court under 24, you’ve received an SAT fee waiver, or your parents make $45,500 or less per year with a family of four.

Although this application is detailed, you don’t have to finish it all in one sitting. You can save your progress and then log in to the dashboard when you’re ready to finish.

Visit the dashboard periodically after you’ve completed the application. You’ll be able to check on your application and add more colleges or any additional documentation that’s requested of you.

CSS Profile questions that might trip you up

Some items on the application may confuse first-time users. Here are a few situations to be ready for:

  • If your parents are divorced: Your non-custodial parent (the one you don’t live with) may be required to fill out the CSS Profile application. If you don’t have contact with your non-custodial parent, you may be able to submit a waiver to colleges requesting that their information not be included. Be aware that some colleges might deny your request and require both parents’ income.
  • If you’re an independent student: You may still have to input your parents’ income information, even though you wouldn’t have to do so for the FAFSA.
  • If you’re an international student: If your country’s tax year isn’t the same as the calendar year, report your tax information for the 12 months ending the previous April.
  • If some questions require more explanation: Be aware of the difference between “explanation/special circumstances” and “supplemental questions.” An explanation is visible to all the colleges you submit the CSS Profile to, and offers the opportunity to share more information regarding the questions on the application. Supplemental questions come from a specific college that asks you for more information; they’re visible only to that college. Don’t include college-specific supplemental question information in the space for explanations and special circumstances unless you want that information shared with every school.

The CSS Profile — lots of pros, few cons

Other than the fees, which can be waived in some circumstances, there are few downsides to filling out a CSS Profile. Submitting the application could be an opportunity to see if you can afford colleges you previously thought were out of reach. If you have questions about the CSS Profile, check out the College Board’s latest CSS Profile Student Guide.

Don’t forget, though, that the CSS Profile may qualify you for loans, which will need to be paid back. If you’re interested in free money to help cover college costs, check out these scholarship search tools.

Taylor Gordon contributed to this report.

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Advertiser Disclosure

Student Loan Hero Advertiser Disclosure

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

Advertiser Disclosure

Student Loan Hero Advertiser Disclosure

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

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