Demystifying the CSS Profile

College financial aid application season is in full swing right now, and if you are in the midst of it, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed with all the moving parts that make up the process.  The College Scholarship Profile (a.k.a. CSS Profile) is an important part of that process at selected schools, and it can create it’s own share of confusion for college applicants.  The financial aid form, which is offered by the College Board — the same people who administer the SAT — became available for the 2013-2014 school year on October 1.  Following are some tips to help you sort out some of the more perplexing aspects of the CSS Profile:

Don’t Confuse the FAFSA with the CSS Profile.  The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) assesses a student for federal aid from the government, while the CSS Profile evaluates a student for institutional aid (i.e. funds that are within the individual school’s control to dole out).  Virtually all schools will ask for the FAFSA for financial aid assessment, but only a handful of colleges (~10%) will ask for the CSS Profile to be completed, too.  Be aware that the CSS Profile does not replace the FAFSA; it is incremental.

The methodologies that are used and the information required by FAFSA and the CSS Profile differ significantly from each other, as well.  The CSS Profile delves into far greater detail than the FAFSA on the parents’ and student’s income, investments, and assets  thereby allowing a far more personalized evaluation of a student’s financial needs.  And, while the CSS Profile becomes available to fill out on October 1 of the preceding school year, the FAFSA doesn’t become available until later on January 1st.

The CSS Profile Has a Fee to File:  It may seem ironic that an application for financial aid costs money, but yes, in fact, the CSS Profile does.  While the FAFSA is free — thus the name Free Application for Federal Student Aid — the CSS Profile costs $25 for the initial application and submission to one college.  Additional reports to other colleges cost $16.  Fee waivers may be automatically granted based on the information provided in the CSS Profile itself, but such fee waivers are limited and only cover up to six schools.

Be Aware of Unexpected Deadlines.  There is no single deadline for the CSS Profile.  Instead, each school has a different set of deadlines, and these deadlines more than likely don’t match up with the college’s admissions application deadlines, either.  Most schools will have an “Early Filing” deadline which is the date by which they want to receive the CSS Profile from their Early Decision or Early Action applicants.  These early deadlines can arrive as soon as November 1st  leaving little time to fill out the  CSS Profile, which generally doesn’t even become available until October 1st.

Beyond the Early Filing deadline is the Priority Filing deadline.  This is the date by which the schools want to have the CSS Profile filed by all non-early applicants.  While applicants can file the CSS Profile after the Priority Filing deadline, schools tend to exhaust their funds over time.  So, if you’re late to file, you may be out of luck in getting your fair allocation of institutional dollars.  The lesson is to file as early as you possibly can, well in advance of whatever deadline you have to meet.

Your CSS Profile Login Is the Same as the One for Your SAT.  Because the College Board is the group who manages the CSS Profile and the SAT, they expect that you will use the same login credentials when you go to get information or take action on either the CSS Profile or one of their standardized tests.  This allows the College Board to correlate your financial aid information with the information that they already have on their database.  Didn’t take an SAT or other College Board administered standardized test?  No worries.  You can simply register anew.

Check Each School’s Website Directly for CSS Profile and Financial Aid Guidance:  The CSS Profile is a great way to provide your financial aid information just a single time that can then be used for multiple schools, but beware that just because the information is standardized does not mean that all schools use the same approach when it comes to the CSS Profile.   For example, some schools may want the CSS Profile only from early applicants but not from those applying Regular Decision.  The CSS Profile may be required for domestic students but different forms are needed from international students.  Also, it’s always a good idea to check the deadlines on the school’s actual website rather than relying strictly on what is reflected on the CSS Profile site.  The bottom line is that nothing is generalizable when it comes to admissions or financial aid applications, so go to the school’s websites to get the information from the source!

Take the Time to Get the Required Documents Together Before You Start to Fill Out the CSS Profile.  Completing the CSS Profile can be a daunting and overwhelming experience, but with some forethought and organization, the task can become easier.  Once you register, the CSS Profile provides you with a customized pre-application worksheet.  Be sure that you look this over thoroughly to see what is being asked of you and what information you will need to gather.  The documents that the CSS Profile indicates that you will need to complete the exercise include:

  • Current year’s (2012) federal income tax return(s), if completed
  • Prior year’s (2011) federal income tax return(s)
  • W-2 forms and other records of money earned in 2012
  • Records of untaxed income and benefits for 2011 and 2012
  • Current bank statements
  • Current mortgage information
  • Records of savings, stocks, bonds, trusts, and other investments

If you need to meet an Early Filing deadline, or one of your schools has an early Priority Filing deadline, you may need to estimate your information for the current tax year.  Gather all of the pertinent documents that you need to make your estimates when you are pulling together your other required documentation.  Remember that estimates are just that.  They do not need to be exact.  So, while you should try to be in the ballpark, don’t fret if your estimate ends up not being 100% correct.

Filing the CSS Profile is a cumbersome, yet valuable exercise, and one that we encourage all college applicants to complete if any of their schools require it.  In spite of its complexities, it provides colleges that have institutional funds available the information necessary to assist students who need financial help in a more personalized and specific way.


Andrea Aronson

College Admissions Consultant

Westfield, NJ

Published by Andrea Aronson

Leading our New Jersey office and based in Westfield, NJ, Andrea Aronson holds an MBA from the Wharton School and a certificate in college counseling from UCLA. As a marketing expert, she assists all students in presenting themselves in the best possible light.

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  1. Excellent article – comprehensive and well written. I do have one question, however. I have never heard of a school requiring a CSS profile from early applicants but not from regular decision applicants. Can you provide me with some examples of schools who do? Thanks!

  2. This is so needed for college students. The financial aid world can be so confusing for new college parents and students to maneuver around. Thanks for the post!

  3. Hi Penny,
    I found it surprising that some schools do this, however, we uncovered at least one — Drexel University — that does have a policy of requiring the CSS Profile for its early applicants but only the FAFSA for its regular applicants. This year, the CSS Profile was due for their early applicants on 11/15, though it’s been extended for those students who were affected by Hurricane Sandy until 12/7.


  4. Hello Ms. Aronson,

    Just read your article. The detailed parents information, especially about their 401k info. Why does the CSS profile need that? Does that lessen the chance of financial aid?

  5. Hi Eric,
    Thanks for your question. The fact is that the schools that use the CSS Profile ask for more financial information so that they can make a more informed decision about how to allocate their funds. Each school that utilizes the CSS Profile will employ their own methodology to figure out whether you receive financial aid and how much. Because of this, it’s impossible generalize and to say whether or not having a 401k will lessen the chance of financial aid. It depends on the school and how they are assessing the information presented to them. Remember that the 401k is only one data point among many that the CSS Profile asks for. I hope that helps!

    Andrea Aronson

  6. So here’s a specific question: we have twins, who are high school seniors now, and who will both be attending college next Fall (the Fates willing!).
    I’m told that this is a real positive for qualifying for aid, even though combined with our incomes we are solidly middle-class. Question: Where they ask you to
    estimate the amounts that we parents expect to allocate to each of their annual educational costs, is it best to err on the low, conservative side — or not?

  7. I would err on the conservative side. But don’t put “zero,” even if that’s what you hope. It makes you look mean and stingy. Put an amount that is affordable to you and your family, but doesn’t overestimate your means. Ironically, financial aid officers have told me that families with the most modest means are the ones that put a relatively high number here, while those with tons of assets and high income are the most likely to say “zero”. Just put in a figure that you feel comfortable with that is not zero.
    Hope that helps.

  8. Is capital investment in rental property and rental income included in CSS profile? And if so in what manner?

    Also is a small amount left on your mortgage a positive or negative on the CSS profile?

  9. Hi. These are technical financial questions that are best left to a financial advisor. The CSS Profile wants to see your entire financial picture, including your rental properties and income, as well as the amounts left on a primary mortgage. I am not a financial expert. But the general principle with these financial aid forms is to identify who can pay and who cannot. People with no debt and valuable assets are less likely to have financial need, and thus less likely to receive need-based aid. Depending on your student’s academic profile, it may be better to shoot for schools that would offer attractive merit-based financial packages.
    Hope this is somewhat helpful.

  10. The CSS/profile submission deadline was November 15 for my Early Decision College, but since I couldn’t manage sufficient funds, I am already late. What should I do? Help!!

  11. Hi, for second year returning students, the college has an early filing date 11/5 and a priority filing date 5/15. Is there an advantage to filing early using the previous year tax data?

  12. I have two kids. My older one is graduating from a 4-year college next June. He plans to pursue postgraduate education but he plans to wait a year until 2017-18 (80% sure at this point.) On the CSS profile it does ask how many people will be college students between July 1, 16 and June 30, 17. If I want to file early should I put a “2” to that question and update later, or should I just put down “1”.

  13. I know the FAFSA requires tax returns to be submitted but what documents are required to be submitted, vs information provided, with the CSS Profile?

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