PDF In-Depth

Filling PDF Forms

November 22, 1999


QUESTION: I have to fill out a form (college application) that I downloaded. I can't find a way to convert a pdf file to a format I can use or find an application that can let me write on top of the pdf file. I do not need to change the file just print it as background with my text on the foreground. I do not want to spend too much money on this. -- Rodrigo

It is possible for the people who made the form to make it "fillable". That is, they spend some time saying where all of the blanks are.

Anyone with a copy of the full Acrobat product can do this (not the free Reader), provided File > Document Info > Security shows "Security method: none" (and in some other cases which cannot be checked with Reader).

The full Acrobat product can be had for a little over $200 US. Whether that is expensive depends on your budget, and what else you would do with it.

It is not unreasonable to ask the creators of forms made available in PDF format why they did not make it fillable. Clearly, if they do it once it is to many people's advantage. Especially for short forms, it can be worth asking them. Sometimes they have already done it. For instance the US tax service, IRS, make many of their most popular forms available in both fillable and non-fillable format. (I'm not sure if popular is the right word there.)

However, if the form is long and complex (is a college application long these days?) there may be a good case not to do this. That's because there is no way to save a part-filled form with Reader. You would have to fill it and print it all in one session. The longer the form, the less viable that is.

It is not really practical to convert the form to another format. First, it needs software you don't have, and presumably don't want to pay for! Second, there isn't really another suitable format for complex forms. If Word was suitable, people would distribute DOC files.

So, what can you do? Probably the college are using the internet to save postage. You have the form, you can print it. Now you are in just the same position as if they had posted it to you. They aren't likely to be upset or surprised if you write on it instead. I'm not sure I can remember how to write!

If you really want to fill it on-line you could try:

  1. Buy the full Acrobat product (but check the form is not protected). Be warned that making a form fillable is fairly slow work, and not necessarily worthwhile if you're only going to fill it once. For instance, you have to drag out a box for each place you want to type, and give it a unique name. (If the names aren't unique, the form fields will all hold copies of the same information.)
  2. Here's an idea. Use Word or something to put your name and other details onto a BLANK sheet. Hold it and the form up to the light and adjust the Word file until the form fields fit where they belong. Now...print the form, and put the paper back in the printer, to print your name and details over the top. (Check your printer is not damaged by this process before you try - some laser printers do not like this!).
  3. Rent or borrow time on a computer which has the full Acrobat installed. (Allow plenty of time for the job!).
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