Understanding The FAFSA When English Or “Financial Aid” Isn’t Your First Language

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Bilingual dictionaries can only translate financial terms so much.

I miss a lot of things about college. My friends. The campus. Those rare, fun classes.

One thing I will never miss? Filling out that darn Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) at the start of every year. I thought that, once I graduated, I would never have to deal with that long, intense, wordy application again.

I was wrong.


As part of my job as college adviser/best older sister to my little brother, I spent my first January as a post-grad lending a hand with his first FAFSA application. Even after doing this four times before, the fifth one was still not easy peasy.

However, I’ve learned a few things along the way. Hopefully, these will help if you dread the FAFSA for the same reasons I did: the language barrier and getting your parents’ tax information.

Look For Help …

The first go around with the form is always the hardest, since you start with zero knowledge about it. The key is not being afraid to ask for help—from a family member, a financial aid officer, or anyone else.

For me, I talked with one of my older siblings. (I guess that’s a tradition among my family.) I never learned about taxes while growing up, so I really had no idea what terms like “W2 form” meant. “El gobierno te quita el dinero de tu cheque?” (The government takes money out of your paycheck?”) I was quite the naive 17-year-old goose.

After a few discussions on grammar, as well as a few other English-to-Spanish translations, I got all the information together and busted it out. (Thanks for helping, sis!) My next three applications were smooth sailing.

… But Be Self-Sufficient

When my little brother asked me to help him out, I told him to give it a go himself, like I had. How else would he learn? However, when he ran into something he couldn’t answer, just call.

I get that the process is intimidating. At first glance, it seems like the pages will never end, and the questions just get harder and harder. But once you answer what you know, the FAFSA website gives you the option of saving your progress and continuing later.

Take your time, if you need to, but stick with it. You’ll not only feel relieved, but you’ll also feel a sense of accomplishment. You did this on your own, and you got all of it done in time. And so my little brother did. And now, he’s just waiting for his award.

Start Early With Your Parents

When the application asked about my parents’ tax information, it took some time to process what that meant. My family never talked about that stuff, so that question was nerve wracking. After all, you don’t want to make a mistake and miss out on an awesome award.

So, if you’re thinking of applying for federal financial aid, I suggest doing it sooner rather than later. And to figure out those income questions, sit your parental next to you and have them explain their financial information (you may have to do some explaining as well). The earlier you do this, the more time you have to check your answers.


On the bright side, the FAFSA website saves all your answers. So, once you get past your first application, most of it will be complete next time. All you have to do is stay on top of your parents as soon as they submit their taxes. (Good luck with that, little bro!)

What tips would you give to someone completing their first FAFSA? Post them in the comments.

(Editor’s note: The Department of Education offers a couple resources that may help if you face the same challenges as Carmen. To easily get your parents’ tax information, you can select the “IRS retrieval” box while completing your FAFSA. This will pull in yours and your parents’ tax information directly from the IRS after your tax returns are completed. You can also access the FAFSA in Spanish at https://fafsa.ed.gov/es_ES/index.htm.)

(Photo: Wikipedia)

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