Think you can get into a top-10 school? Take our chance-me calculator... if you dare. 🔥


Last updated August 17, 2023

Every piece we write is researched and vetted by a former admissions officer. Read about our mission to pull back the admissions curtain.

What are the CSS Profile and FAFSA?

Key Takeaway

When applying to college, financial aid is a big part of the process. The FAFSA and CSS Profile are two main ways to apply for aid. The FAFSA is federal and determines your Expected Family Contribution and the federal aid you qualify for. The CSS Profile is used by some schools to assess your need for institutional aid.

College is expensive. We know, that’s not news!

That’s why financial aid is a huge part of the college search and application process. When applying to college, you’ll need to do more than just fill out your college application. You’ll also need to apply for financial aid.

Across the board, there are two main ways you apply for financial aid.

The first is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The second is the CSS Profile.

So what are the FAFSA and CSS Profile? What do they do, and how are they different?

Let’s get into it.

What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is a financial aid application managed by the federal government. You use it to apply for federal student aid, which includes subsidized loans, unsubsidized loans, Parent PLUS loans, Pell Grants, and work study.

Everyone who needs financial aid for college should fill out the FAFSA!

It works like this: after logging into the FAFSA website, you enter all your family’s financial details and submit your information. You’ll also indicate which colleges and universities you’d like to send your FAFSA information to.

The FAFSA then calculates something called your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is what the government has determined that your family should be able to contribute towards your education each year.

Your EFC also determines how much (and what kinds) of federal financial aid you qualify for. If your EFC is on the lower side (meaning that the government has determined that your family cannot reasonably contribute much to your education), then you will qualify for more and better kinds of aid, like subsidized loans, work study, and Pell Grants.

The colleges and universities you submit your FAFSA to also use your EFC to determine what kinds of institutional financial aid you might qualify for, like additional scholarships and grants.

What is the CSS Profile?

The CSS Profile is a financial form that some colleges and universities use to determine whether you qualify for any institutional need-based aid.

It’s similar to the FAFSA because it collects your financial information. But it’s different because it's handled by the College Board rather than the federal government, and it’s unrelated to the federal financial aid you receive.

While everyone seeking aid should fill out the FAFSA, not everyone needs to fill out the CSS Profile. You’ll only need to complete the CSS Profile if you’re applying to schools that require it. Their admissions or financial aid pages should tell you whether or not it’s required.

The CSS Profile calculates your financial need in a different way from the FAFSA. Specifically, it gives a broader view of your financial situation by allowing you to explain any extenuating circumstances and asking about more financial details (like real estate assets) than the FAFSA does.

So the final numbers on your CSS Profile may look a bit different than your FAFSA. That’s okay. Schools will use the numbers differently to determine your financial aid.

How do schools use the FAFSA and CSS Profile?

In general, the FAFSA and CSS Profile help you get as much financial aid as possible.

The lower your FAFSA Expected Contribution, the more likely you are to get more federal financial aid. And the more your CSS Profile determines your financial need, the more likely you are to get institutional aid.

These numbers become especially important at schools that meet full “demonstrated need,” which is the difference between the cost of attendance and your EFC.

For example, if your FAFSA determines that your EFC is $15,000 but the cost of attending the institution is $70,000, then an institution that meets full demonstrated need would offer you aid that covers the gap (minus any federal aid you qualify for). That can be huge.

Who should fill out the FAFSA or CSS Profile?

Unless you're absolutely sure you don't need any financial aid at all, you should fill out the FAFSA. It's super important. You could be eligible for a bunch of scholarships you're not even aware of, so having your FAFSA on file can give you the best chance possible to qualify for aid.

As for the CSS Profile, only complete it for the schools that specifically ask for it. Don't stress if the numbers from the FAFSA and CSS Profile don't match up perfectly—they’re different forms with different purposes.

Although the FAFSA and CSS Profile seem intimidating to add on to your already overflowing workload. But listen. No adult likes to do taxes. That’s why a lot of us outsource it to professionals!

The FAFSA and CSS Profile are like taxes: they’re a necessary hassle.


When applying for college, you need to consider financial aid. Two important tools are the FAFSA and CSS Profile. The FAFSA is federal. It determines your Expected Family Contribution and the federal aid you qualify for, like loans and grants. The CSS Profile, managed by the College Board, is used by some schools to assess your need for institutional aid. You should fill out FAFSA unless you're sure you don't need aid, and CSS Profile only if a school requires it. They're a necessary hassle but help maximize your aid.

Liked that? Try this next.