Key takeaways

  • Completing the CSS profile can help you qualify for non-federal aid opportunities.
  • This form, unlike the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) , is used by a limited number of colleges.
  • It costs $25 to fill out a CSS profile for each school ($16 for each additional school), though you may qualify for a waiver if you meet certain requirements.

The CSS Profile is a form some schools use to determine institutional financial aid. Used by more than 250 institutions nationwide, the CSS Profile asks more questions than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The CSS Profile can qualify students for aid packages funded by their college. Here’s what you should know about this application before filling it out.

What is the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile is an online application used to award institutional aid, grants and scholarships. Because only some colleges and universities use the CSS Profile, students should check with their school before completing it.

The CSS Profile doesn’t have a national deadline; the deadline to apply can vary from school to school. However, the CSS Profile has an opening date: Oct. 1 of each year. If you’re applying for financial aid at multiple schools, you can add the schools you’d like to send your application to on your online dashboard.

The CSS Profile application is much lengthier and more detailed than the FAFSA. The application considers income streams, assets and expenses not included on the FAFSA, such as life insurance plans, home equity on a family’s primary residence and income and assets held by a noncustodial parent in cases of divorce.

The CSS Profile vs. the FAFSA

There are important distinctions between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. Here are some key differences to consider.

Aid provided Grants, scholarships and loans provided by school Federal and state aid, including grants, scholarships and loans
Where to apply College Board
Fee $25 for one school; $16 per additional school Free
Required information Income and asset details; business income; bank statements; records of untaxed income and benefits; medical expenses Personal information from student and parents; income and asset details; business income
Eligibility U.S. citizens and international students U.S. citizens, some non-U.S. citizens (asylum seekers, permanent residents and refugees)
Participating schools Participating institutions only Any postsecondary institution that offers federal financial aid
Application renewal Annually Annually

You may be eligible for a fee waiver when filling out the CSS profile. According to the College Board website, a domestic undergraduate student may fill the profile out for free if:

  • Their family adjusted gross income is up to $100,000
  • They qualified for an SAT fee waiver
  • They are an orphan or ward of the court under the age of 24

Remember that the CSS Profile is not a substitute for the FAFSA; it’s a supplement for specific colleges and universities. If your prospective college uses the CSS Profile, you’ll still want to fill out both applications. Without the FAFSA, you won’t be eligible for federal student loans, federal grants like the Pell Grant or state grants. The FAFSA is a separate application that runs on its own schedule and deadlines.

How to complete the CSS Profile

To begin the CSS Profile process, go to the CSS Profile website. Here you can find the application itself, check participating schools and scholarships and locate resources to assist you.

1. Gather the appropriate information

You may need to have the following forms on hand to complete your application:

  • Most recently completed tax returns.
  • W-2 or 1099 forms for the past two years.
  • Total untaxed income and benefits for the current and previous tax years.
  • Current savings, checking, stocks, bonds, trusts, UTMA and UGMA balances for both the parent and the student.
  • Current 529 plan balance for all children in the home.
  • Current balance of all retirement savings accounts.
  • Information about your primary residence, including the year you purchased it, its purchase price, its current value, mortgage information and more.

2. Create an account

If you have a College Board account, you can log in using your existing account information. Otherwise, you’ll need to create a College Board account to use the CSS Profile to apply for institutional aid.

3. Fill out the CSS Profile

Once you have an account set up and have all your information together, you can fill out the application. For the most part, the process involves answering questions about your life and providing your personal information and financial information.

If you have trouble during the process, College Board offers several resources that can help. For example, it offers an online tutorial that is free to use. It also offers live help over the phone at 844-202-0524 or through live chat. Agents are available to answer questions and walk you through the process Monday through Friday.

4. Submit the application

Once you’ve filled out the necessary forms, you’ll select the schools to which you’d like to send the form and pay any application fees.

At this point, you can view the information you submitted on your account dashboard. You may be asked to upload documentation here, and you can add schools as well. If you make a mistake on your CSS Profile application, you can update this form by visiting the dashboard and clicking “Correct Your CSS Profile.”

What questions does the CSS Profile ask?

The CSS Profile asks more questions about income streams and assets than the FAFSA, and many colleges also add supplemental questions to get a more comprehensive view of your financial situation. Michael McLaughlin, director of financial aid at Middlebury College, says this is because more aid is often at stake with private institutions that require the CSS Profile.

“We need to be more diligent on the information that we collect and get a more accurate picture for each student when giving out high amounts of institutional aid,” he says.

The CSS Profile assesses the money you have, but it also examines the money you spend with questions about your family’s medical expenses, debts, mortgage status, business expenses and other costs not included on the FAFSA.

The CSS Profile may ask for more information, but more reported assets don’t necessarily mean a smaller financial aid package. Unlike the FAFSA, which determines how much government aid you’re eligible for regardless of where you attend school, colleges and universities individually decide how to interpret CSS Profile information. That includes which assets and expenses they consider.

When is the CSS Profile due?

Most students who plan to attend an institution that uses the CSS Profile complete their application at some point during their final year of high school. But individual schools have different deadlines, so you’ll have to check with your future school to find out exactly when your CSS Profile is due.

Many schools go with a deadline between Jan. 1 and March 1 each year. However, it’s always better to apply for institutional aid as early as possible.

CSS Profile tips and tricks

The CSS Profile is more thorough than the FAFSA, but there are certain steps applicants can take to maximize their aid eligibility:

  • Don’t overestimate the value of your primary home. By keeping the value of your home in line with actual values, your expected family contribution also stays down.
  • Shift assets from accounts held in a student’s name to those held in a parent’s name. Many schools give greater weight to assets held in a student’s name than those held in a parent’s name, though those formulas can vary by institution.
  • Monitor deadlines. The CSS Profile deadline is often significantly earlier than that of the FAFSA, and deadlines will vary from school to school. Complete the application as soon as possible to take advantage of aid awards distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

The bottom line

The CSS Profile may require more information than the FAFSA, but it’s worth the time and effort if you’re applying to a college that requires it for financial aid. To ensure you maximize your potential aid, complete the profile as early as possible. By not filling out the CSS Profile, you could miss out on thousands of dollars of gift aid offered only through the college’s financial aid funds.