Updated on October 11, 2021
While the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens the door to federal financial aid, the lesser-known CSS Profile unlocks financial aid from your college or university. Over 200 schools use the CSS Profile to dole out nonfederal financial aid to students.
Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile isn’t free, unless you can qualify for a fee waiver. But it’s worth submitting so you can potentially get grants, scholarships and other aid from your school.
Read on to learn more about this important form, along with some CSS Profile tricks and tips to help you maximize your chances for financial aid.
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 Oct. 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), soon to be renamed Student Aid Index, 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:
|Differences between the FAFSA and CSS|
|● The FAFSA puts you in the running for federal aid; the CSS Profile puts you in the running for institutional aid or aid from your school.
● 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 for the first school and a $16 fee for each additional school. (It’s possible to get a fee waiver, depending on your family’s income.)
Deadlines for the CSS Profile vary by school and by program. The application is available starting on Oct. 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.
College application deadlines often fall in November for early decision or early action and January for regular decision (though these vary by school). Plan to get your CSS Profile in before that time.
- Submit the CSS Profile to every participating school you’re applying to. Given the investment, 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 a school. Investing the money to see what aid you qualify for is usually worth the application cost.
- Consider shifting assets from the student to the parent. A school might give greater weight to assets in the student’s name than the parents’, though the financial aid formula varies by college.
- Be careful when listing assets. Know that your parents’ home may also be taken into account, so be sure not to overestimate its value.
- Keep track of deadlines. Your school’s deadline for the CSS Profile might be earlier than you realize. Make sure you’re tracking the CSS Profile deadline along with the FAFSA and application deadlines.
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 at 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 $45,000 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.
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 noncustodial parent (the one you don’t live with) might be required to fill out the CSS Profile application. If you don’t have contact with your noncustodial 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 international student: You can submit financial information in your home country’s currency, and the College Board will do the currency conversion for you.
- If schools pose supplemental questions: Some colleges ask supplemental questions. Make sure you’ve answered every question from each individual school, as your answers on these will only be visible to the specific college asking for that information.
Over 200 colleges and universities require the CSS Profile to distribute institutional aid. You can check out the full list of participating institutions on the College Board website.
Here are a few examples of schools that use the CSS Profile to calculate aid:
- American University
- Amherst College
- Baylor University
- Boston College
- Brown University
- Bryn Mawr College
- California Institute of Technology
- Cornell University
- Duke University
- Georgetown University
- Georgia Institute of Technology
- Harvard College
- Johns Hopkins University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Middlebury College
- New York University
- Northwestern University
- Rice University
- Smith College
- Stanford University
- Tufts University
- Tulane University
- University of Miami
- University of Michigan
- University of Notre Dame
- University of Virginia
- Vanderbilt University
- Vassar College
- Wake Forest University
- Yale University
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 might qualify you for loans, which will need to be paid back. If you’re interested in money to help cover college costs, check out these scholarship search tools.