The FAFSA is needed for federal student aid, while the CSS Profile is used only by some schools for state and institutional aid.
To get financial aid for college, you must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. But your school may also want you to submit the CSS Profile, an additional application that determines state and institutional aid.
The FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal aid like the Pell Grant, work-study and federal student loans if you attend most colleges that participate in the Title IV federal financial aid program. The application is also often required by states and schools for their own scholarship and grant programs.
The CSS Profile is only used by certain schools, listed on the CSS Profile site, as part of their financial aid process for aid like grants and scholarships.
Here are the ways in which the CSS Profile differs from the FAFSA.
What information you have to submit
The FAFSA asks you to include information on your family’s assets and income to calculate an expected family contribution, which is the amount your family will contribute toward paying for school.
The CSS Profile usually wants more information about your family’s finances than the FAFSA. For example, the CSS Profile will collect information on your family’s annual income as well as medical expenses and anything else that could affect your ability to pay. Also — unlike the FAFSA — if your parents are divorced you’ll need information from both of them, so they’ll each need to complete the CSS profile separately.
The CSS Profile usually wants more information about your family’s finances than the FAFSA.
When you need to submit
Both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile application open Oct. 1 the year before you need financial aid. For the 2019-20 school year, both applications opened Oct. 1, 2018.
File the FAFSA as close to the start date as possible to improve your likelihood of getting the most grant, scholarship and work-study aid. The FAFSA deadlineis June 30 after the school year in which you want aid. For example, for the 2019-20 school year, the deadline is June 30, 2020.
The CSS Profile deadline is different for each school. But you should submit the application no later than two weeks before the earliest deadline.
You must submit the FAFSA each year you plan to receive financial aid. You must also submit the CSS Profile each year, if the application is accepted by the school you attend.
Who can apply
Only students who meet basic eligibility criteria can submit the FAFSA. Any student who is a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen will qualify for some federal student aid, even if that only means federal loans.
The CSS Profile is available to citizens as well as international student applicants.
How much it costs
The FAFSA is free to apply, but not all the aid you receive is free. Grants, scholarships and work-study do not need to be repaid, but federal student loans do.
The CSS Profile costs $25 to submit for one school. You’ll pay an additional $16 per school if you’re applying for aid elsewhere.
How you apply
Apply for the FAFSA online at FAFSA.gov or by using the myStudentAid mobile app. You could also complete a PDF online, then print and send by mail.
You can submit the CSS Profile only online.
Anna is a personal finance writer at NerdWallet. Her work has been featured by The Associated Press, USA Today and Time