A Complete Guide to the CSS Profile for College

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  • Like the FAFSA, the CSS Profile is an online financial aid form used for college.
  • The CSS Profile is used mostly by private colleges to award institutional aid.
  • Compared to the FAFSA, the CSS Profile is more detailed and requires more time and effort.
  • Applicants must submit the CSS Profile by their schools' specified deadlines.

Created by the College Board, the CSS Profile, or College Scholarship Service Profile, is similar to the FAFSA in that filling it out may qualify you for certain types of financial aid for college. Unlike the FAFSA, however, which awards federal aid, the CSS Profile awards only nonfederal institutional aid.

Today, hundreds of colleges require first-year applicants to submit the CSS Profile so they can better understand students' financial situations and needs when awarding aid.

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The CSS Profile entails a detailed process of gathering tax documents, consulting custodial and noncustodial parents or guardians, and calculating income. This in-depth guide walks you through everything you need to know about the College Board's CSS Profile, including who needs to submit it and how to fill it out.

Who Should Submit the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile is meant to be used in addition to — not in place of — the FAFSA. This form allows colleges to award applicants extra types of institutional aid, such as institutional grants, loans, and need-based scholarships, that are not available through the FAFSA.

You only need to fill out the CSS Profile if your school requires it. By contrast, all college applicants should submit the FAFSA.

Experts strongly advise applicants from low-income families to submit the CSS Profile. Doing this could result in additional need-based aid they otherwise wouldn't have received had they only filled out the FAFSA.

How to Fill Out the CSS Profile

The CSS Profile is an extremely in-depth form that generally requires more time and effort than the FAFSA. For this financial aid profile, students must fill out information about their biological/adoptive parents, stepparents/parents' partners, and/or legal guardian(s).

Students need to submit parent or guardian information on taxes and assets using documents such as tax returns from the previous two years, mortgage statements, bank statements, W-2 forms, and other records of income.

Compared to the FAFSA, the CSS Profile places more emphasis on an applicant's family situation, taking into account factors like medical bills and school costs for other dependents. There's even a special section you can use to describe extenuating circumstances, such as a disability you or a family member has, a family death, or a recent job loss.

To fill out and submit the CSS Profile, go to the College Board website and make an account. (If you've taken the SAT, you can simply log in with those credentials.) All your financial aid information is saved as you go, allowing you to return anytime to complete the form.

How Much Does the CSS Profile Cost?

Unlike the FAFSA, which is free to fill out, it costs $25 to send the CSS Profile to one college or scholarship program. After that, it's an additional $16 per recipient. So if you applied to five schools that all required the CSS Profile, you'd pay $89.

Fortunately, fee waivers are available to low-income students. If you previously qualified for an SAT fee waiver, you'll automatically qualify for a CSS Profile fee waiver, making it free to send to schools.

Eligibility requirements for a CSS Profile fee waiver are as follows:

  • You and your family live in the U.S.
  • You previously qualified for an SAT fee waiver
  • Your adjusted gross family income is $100,000 or less per year
  • You are an orphan or ward of the court under the age of 24

When Is the CSS Profile Due?

The CSS Profile opens each year on October 1 — the same day the FAFSA opens. Due dates, however, vary depending on the institution. Many colleges require applicants to submit their profiles by the general application deadline. The College Board recommends turning in your CSS Profile at least two weeks prior to your earliest college application deadline.

Ultimately, you'll need to check with each school you're applying to. As with any important document, the earlier you get this profile done, the better.

Remember that the CSS Profile can take a long time to fill out, so give yourself at least a few weeks, if not months, to gather all the documentation needed to complete it.

What Schools Require the CSS Profile?

Approximately 400 colleges and universities — consisting of research universities, technical schools, and small liberal arts colleges — require the CSS Profile. While the majority of these schools are private institutions, a handful of big-name public universities, including the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, require the profile as well.

Some colleges require the CSS Profile from all first-year applicants, whereas others require it from domestic or international students only. Consult your school to determine whether you'll need to submit the CSS Profile.

A complete list of CSS Profile schools is available at the College Board.

4 Essential CSS Profile Tips and Tricks

The CSS Profile can feel overwhelming at first. In addition to the College Board's step-by-step tutorial, use these tips to help you fill out the profile with confidence.

Start Early

The CSS Profile takes time to fill out and is due before the FAFSA, so it's best to start as early as possible. Plan to begin working on it soon after October 1, when the form is released.

Get Help From Your Custodial and Noncustodial Parents/Guardians

You're not expected to complete the CSS Profile all on your own. After all, it asks a lot of questions about parent/guardian income. Sit down with your custodial and noncustodial parents or guardians to go over what documents you'll need. Try to coordinate specific dates and times you can all work together to fill out the form.

Don't Do It All in One Sitting

The CSS Profile is an intensive aid application that typically takes hours to fill out. You're more likely to mess up something important if you do it all at once, so spread out the process over several days or weeks.

Double-Check Everything Before You Submit

Never submit the CSS Profile without looking over all the information in it. You'll need to confirm you've answered every question accurately and supplied all necessary documents. Just one small mistake could compromise your prospects for institutional aid, so try to commit an entire session to looking over your application alongside your parents or guardians.

Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about financial issues.

Feature Image: fizkes / iStock / Getty Images Plus

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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