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

css profile

Getting the results from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was one of the most disappointing moments in my young adult life. My parents had worked two jobs for many years so they could send me to a college prep high school. I was sure our modest family income would qualify me for grants.

It didn’t.

If only I’d known about the CSS Profile, an application for aid that could have opened the door to nonfederal grants (and loans). Instead, we took the results of the FAFSA and did the best we could, signing on for federal loans and deciding I’d live at home to prevent adding dorm costs to my tuition bill.

But you don’t have to be content with whatever you get from the FAFSA. If your college is one of the nearly 400 that require or participate in the CSS Profile, you can throw your hat in the ring for more aid than what the federal government provides. Here’s everything you need to know about the CSS Profile.

What is the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile is an application for institutional aid you fill out via the College Board. While the FAFSA is an application for aid from the federal government, the CSS Profile is an application for aid from your chosen college.

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

  • Both applications make you eligible for grants and loans for college.
  • The CSS Profile, like the FAFSA, is available in early October.
  • The earlier you file, the better, as both work 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 yours with 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 goes into more detail and might require a follow-up verification process.
  • 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 level.)

Tips for filling out your CSS Profile

First of all, not all colleges take part in this program. But if you’re applying to one or more colleges that do participate, then you might want to fill out a CSS Profile for each one.

On one hand, given the cost and time investment (several hours to several days, depending on how much access you have to your parents’ financial information), you might choose to fill out only one CSS Profile for your top-choice college. But there’s no predicting what you’ll get. One school could have a larger budget for aid than another, so it might pay to take a swing with any school you’re serious about attending.

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

  • Most recent tax returns (and tax forms from the past two years)
  • W-2 forms and any other records of income
  • Current bank statements
  • Any records you have of savings, stocks and bonds, trusts, and so on

Once you have your documents ready and register for an account on the College Board, you can start your application. After you sign up on the site, you can add more colleges anytime for an additional $16 fee per school.

There are a few ways to avoid the fees. If you’re an orphan or ward of the court under 24, if you’ve been given an SAT fee waiver, or if your parents make $45,000 or less per year, you can get the fees waived.

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 up.

You should visit the dashboard periodically after you’re finished as well. There, you’ll be able to check on your application and add more colleges or any additional documentation that’s requested of you.

Places you might get tripped up on the application

As straightforward as the CSS Profile might be, there are a few spots that could trip you up. Here are some things to be ready for:

  • If your parents are divorced: Input the income of your custodial parent (the one you’ve been living with for most of the past year) or the one who’s going to contribute the most to your education costs. Be aware that some colleges might make you include both parents’ income, regardless of their intentions to help you pay for school.
  • If you’re an independent student: You might 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 “explanations/special circumstances” and “supplemental questions.” The first is seen by all the colleges you apply to with the CSS Profile, and it’s an opportunity to share more information regarding the questions on the application. The second is when a specific college asks you for more information; it’s seen only by that college.
  • If you see questions that don’t apply to you: Put zero as the number.

The CSS Profile — lots of pros, few cons

Other than the fees, which can be waived, you don’t have much to lose in this process other than time. So, not only is it a good idea to fill out a CSS Profile if your college participates, but it also could be an opportunity to see if you can afford some colleges you previously thought were out of reach.

That said, don’t forget the CSS Profile can lead to grants and loans; it’s not all free money.

If you have questions about the CSS Profile or need a quick guide to help, check out the College Board’s latest CSS Profile fact sheet. And if you want to search for more help with covering your college tuition, check out these scholarship search tools.

Kali Hawlk contributed to this article.

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