Essential CSS Profile Tips and Tricks

Everything you need to know about filling out the CSS profile to qualify for non-federal student financial aid

Deciding on which school to further your education at is a huge decision--but so is deciding how to fund it! If you’re like most students, you’ll want to see what kind of financial aid might be available to you in the form of grants, scholarships, work study opportunities, and loans. While you and your family might be able to pay for some of the cost, chances are you’ll need to see what other kinds of financial assistance are out there.

While we always recommend students complete the FAFSA for federal aid, did you know that you can also complete the CSS profile (College Scholarship Service), which is an application for non-federal aid? In fact, some schools even require it. If you’re curious to know more about this option, and the best ways to complete it, keep reading because we’re going to delve a little deeper into this topic and learn:

  • What the CSS profile is and whether or not you have to complete it
  • How the CSS differs from the FAFSA
  • Top tips and tricks to completing the CSS profile successfully

What is the CSS Profile?

How do you know if you should even complete the CSS profile?

The CSS profile is an application you will complete for non-federal financial aid. Image courtesy of Lifewire.

You’re probably already aware of the FAFSA, which is one of the easiest ways to see what kinds of federal financial aid you qualify for. Any student can fill out the application and send it to up to 10 schools to see what financial assistance may be available. But did you know there is another application you can submit that will determine what kind of non-federal aid you could qualify for? This is what is known as the CSS Profile, which is administered by the College Board. Not all colleges require the completion of this form, however, there are colleges (many of which are private, but you can double check if your school is on the CSS list) that do require its completion as a part of the financial aid process.

The CSS is a more in depth look at the financial situation of the student and their family, and can take into account more information than just taxable income, family size, and assets. This is especially helpful for lower income students since it can create a more nuanced picture of the actual amount that the family can contribute to the student’s schooling--which may lead to additional financial assistance.

Do You Have to Fill Out the CSS Profile?

How do you know whether or not to fill out the CSS profile?

Some, but not all, schools require you to complete and submit the CSS profile. Image courtesy of US News.

As we mentioned above, some schools require that you complete a CSS profile. If your school does not require it, you may still find it worth your time to fill it out and submit it. You never know what kind of additional funding might be available to you beyond what the FAFSA can provide. If your school does require that you fill it out, it’s always a good idea to do it sooner rather than later. However, be aware that there is a cost to completing the CSS profile of $25, but waiver of the fee is available to lower income students.

The earliest you can start to fill out and submit your CSS profile is October 1st (similar to the FAFSA) for the following academic year. If you do find that you need to complete the CSS profile, you’ll need to follow these steps:

  • Create an account for the College Board so that you can complete the CSS profile online
  • Gather all the necessary documents to help complete your application
  • Include any circumstances or financial hardships that are not apparent on tax forms (here you can go into detail why you should be considered for additional non-federal financial aid)
  • Pay the $25 fee (and $16 fee for each additional school that you are sending the CSS to)
  • Submit your application

Some forms and documents you'll want to have on hand include:

  • Tax information
  • W2 forms (or equivalent)
  • Information regarding untaxed income
  • Assets, real estate, and banking accounts

Don’t forget that you can always add additional schools that you would like the CSS profile sent to, you will just be charged an additional fee. Once your CSS profile is submitted, your application will be processed and your schools will determine what kind of non-federal aid you may qualify for.

How Does the CSS Profile Differ from the FAFSA?

Do you need to fill out both the CSS profile and the FAFSA?

The CSS profile and FAFSA are separate applications and administer different types of financial aid. Image courtesy of Peterson’s.

Both the CSS profile and the FAFSA are applications you can use to apply for student financial aid for school. They both require information that includes your parents income, taxes, and other financial information that you can complete online. They both also open on October 1st to submissions, and we recommend that if you’re completing these forms, you do them as early as you can!

However, there are also some differences between the CSS profile and the FAFSA:

  • Type of aid. As we mentioned earlier, the CSS profile is an application that students submit for non-federal aid. There are grants, scholarships, and loans that may be available depending on the institution that you’re applying to. The FAFSA is an application for federal aid that any student can apply to for federal financial aid.
  • Who applies. Any student that is seeking out federal financial aid opportunities can apply for assistance using the FAFSA. It’s one of the easiest ways to see how much financial aid assistance you qualify for. The CSS profile however is typically filled out by those students that are applying to schools that require this information, and it is for non-federal aid.
  • Cost. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is free for any student to apply. You can list up to 10 schools that you would like your information sent to, also free of any fees. The CSS profile does have a $25 fee in order to submit the application and send your information to one school. If you’d like CSS profile information sent to additional schools, that will cost $16 per school.
  • Schools that accept these forms. All schools accept the FAFSA since it is the application for federal aid. Schools that require the CSS profile accept the CSS profile, however, some schools that do not require the CSS profile, may not accept it. It is best to check with your school’s financial aid office if you’re unsure whether they accept it.
  • Detailed information. While the FAFSA does ask for a lot of information regarding income and financial assets, the CSS profile goes into greater detail. The CSS also offers you the chance to outline the circumstances surrounding the extent to which your family can contribute.

Tips and Tricks for Filling Out the CSS Profile

Keep these tips in mind if you’re considering filling out a CSS profile

Make sure to get your CSS profile (and your FAFSA) submitted early! Image courtesy of The Scholarship System.

Now that you know a little more about filling out the CSS profile, here are our tips and tricks to getting it right the first time:

1. Know which application you need to fill out and their deadlines

Now you know that filling out the FAFSA is not the same as filling out the CSS profile. You may just need to fill out the FAFSA if your school does not require the CSS profile. However if your school does require the CSS profile, make sure to fill it out as soon as you can in order to see what non-federal aid you might qualify for. One is not a substitute for the other!

2. Have all your information ready

Just like with the FAFSA, you will be able to fill out your CSS profile quicker if you have all the information you need upfront (tax returns, banking information, W2s, etc.). It may take a little digging to find, but it’s worth it in the long run.

3. Confirm whether or not your school requires the CSS profile

The College Board has a list of all the schools that require the CSS profile, so make sure you double check it to see if yours does. Even if your school doesn’t require a CSS profile, it may not hurt to submit one anyway, as long as that school will accept it. You can find out if it does or not from their financial aid office.

4. Apply for the correct academic year

Although it may seem like a no-brainer, when you’re submitting your CSS profile, you’re doing it for the next academic year, so make sure the application you’re using is the correct one!

5. If your parents are divorced or separated pay extra attention to the details

Filling out a CSS profile when your parents are divorced or separated can get a little complicated. The application may require financial details about both parents, which can make the application a little more difficult to fill out. The College Board recognizes this and has created detailed instructions to deal with this type of scenario.

Make sure to follow these tips and tricks to completing your CSS profile for a smooth application process--and remember to submit it early!

Image courtesy of Cyber Degrees.

Bridget Houlihan
Bridget is a writer based in Pittsburgh, PA.
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