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If you’re a student applying to college this year, possibly the most important thing you must know is how to apply for federal aid by filling out the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

You might be wondering why filling out the FAFSA is so important, especially considering that, at first glance, it looks intimidatingly long and complicated. But filling out the FAFSA can be easy if you’re well prepared, and it’s definitely worth the time and effort.

Step-by-step guide to applying for FAFSA

Wondering how to apply for FAFSA? Before beginning, review this list to make sure you don’t miss any important steps in the process:

  • Understand what the FAFSA is and why it’s important
  • Double check that you should be submitting a FAFSA application
  • Find the FAFSA deadline and add it to your calendar
  • Determine your dependency status
  • Identify and gather the documents you’ll need
  • Apply for or locate your Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID)
  • Set a time to sit down with a parent (or both parents) to fill out the FAFSA
  • Learn which schools to apply to
  • Look up your federal school codes
  • Review and submit your application
  • Double check the details on your Student Aid Report
  • Correct, update, verify

What is the FAFSA and why is it important?

The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and is used by students (and their parents) in order to receive government financial aid for college. The FAFSA helps colleges and the U.S. Department of Education evaluate your financial need, and determine how much financial support you require.

The FAFSA is your portal to federal and state student aid including private student loans (money you have to pay back), grants (money you don’t have to pay back), and work-study positions (money you have to work for). Your university may also use the FAFSA to evaluate your need for private scholarships awarded through the financial aid office.

The information you provide about your family’s income on the FAFSA is shared with the colleges you intend to apply to, and state higher education agencies where those school are located. The FAFSA helps determine not only what aid you qualify for, but your expected family contribution toward the cost of your education, which will vary by school.

What are some common FAFSA mistake I should avoid?

Many FAFSA mistakes are easily avoidable, so be sure to understand them before getting started.

To begin with, don’t make the mistake of skipping the FAFSA entirely. While seemingly straightforward, you’d be surprised how many people miss out on opportunities at federal or private funding for school, simply because they didn’t take the time or didn’t think the FAFSA was for them.

You should also make sure you’re using fafsa.gov to fill out your application. Some non-government websites will masquerade as the official application and charge a fee, but keep in mind the FAFSA should never cost you anything!

Timing-wise, be sure to submit your FAFSA before the deadline, but try to get it in sooner. You could miss out on free money for college by waiting, as many funds are first come, first served, so don’t make that mistake.

Lastly, fill out the FAFSA carefully to avoid revisions and a processing delay. Read the instructions and definitions before deciding on each answer. Common mistakes include errors in social security number, names, household size, dependency status, who is reported as a parent, number of family members in college, and more. If you fill it out carefully the first time, then review it in detail before submitting, you’ll decrease your chances of having to resubmit your application, which can cause significant delays.

Who should submit a FAFSA application?

If you’re going to college or graduate school in the U.S., there’s a good chance you should fill out the FAFSA. All U.S. citizens and permanent residents attending college should complete the FAFSA. Some financial aid offices at universities will even ask international students to apply, as the FAFSA can help them evaluate whether these students are eligible for institutional aid.

Some people mistakenly think that only students who need help paying for college should fill out the FAFSA. But not filling out the FAFSA simply because you think you don’t qualify for need-based financial aid would be a big mistake. For colleges, the FAFSA is a way to determine whether you qualify for any sort of financial aid, including assistance that’s not need-based. If you don’t fill out the FAFSA, you may not qualify for any kind of aid from your school or the government.

Can I fill out the FAFSA if my parents are undocumented immigrants?

If your parents are undocumented immigrants, but you are in the U.S. legally, you can still fill out the FAFSA. While filling out the FAFSA will not endanger your parents (by law, other federal agencies cannot see your FAFSA application), you should consult a financial aid professional before filling out the form. You can also call the FAFSA hotline at 1-800-433-3243 to ask them about any special steps you might be required to take if your parents are undocumented.

If you are undocumented, you cannot receive federal money in any form, and while you may be able to use a paper version of the FAFSA, you should not submit it to the government. Like international students, your college may award you private scholarships based on the information in FAFSA, so print it out and present it to the universities you’re considering to see what options may be available to you.

When is the FAFSA due and when can I start applying for financial aid?

For the 2017-2018 academic year, you can submit your FAFSA anytime between October 1, 2016, and midnight Central Time, June 30, 2018. You can find your state’s 2017-2018 application deadline here.

However, a lot of financial aid is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis, so we encourage everyone to submit their forms as soon as possible once the application opens. You can begin submitting FAFSA applications for the 2018-2019 academic year on Oct. 1, 2017.

In addition, some states and colleges have earlier deadlines, so the sooner, the better. You can find your state’s 2018-2019 student aid deadline here.

Am I a dependent or independent applicant according to the FAFSA?

The FAFSA requires you to determine whether you are dependent on a parent or not. Being dependent means that you are legally dependent on someone besides yourself—most, high-school students are dependent on their parents.

For the purposes of the FAFSA, a parent is any of the following:

  • Your birth mother or father
  • A parent who adopted you
  • A step-parent who’s married to your birth or adoptive parent

If you live with a parent (as defined above), or you live alone, or with grandparents/siblings/close friends, but are still in contact with your parents, you are considered to be dependent.

However, you may be considered independent if you are:

  • 24 years old or older
  • Married
  • Financially supporting children of your own
  • Orphaned, in foster care, in legal guardianship, or a ward of the court

The FAFSA walks you through a series of questions in order to help you determine your dependency status, but knowing your status ahead of time can help you figure out which documents you’ll need to gather.

Which documents will I need to fill out the FAFSA?

Before jumping into the application, get all your documents in one place to make the filling out process easier.

These documents can include the following, but may change based on your dependency status (as determined by the question above):

  • Your Social Security number
  • Social Security numbers for one or both parents: If you cannot access the physical cards, double check that the names and social security numbers match your parents’ tax returns
  • Your driver’s license, if you have one
  • Alien registration or permanent resident cards, if you or your parents are not U.S. citizens
  • Your parents’ tax records: These include forms like the IRS 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, and any documents used to fill out tax returns like W-2 forms, bank statements, or mortgage interest statements*. If you’re filling out the 2017–18 FAFSA, you will need your tax information from 2015. The 2018–19 FAFSA form, which will be available Oct. 1, 2017, will ask you to submit your 2016 tax information.

*Some students will be able to use the IRS data retrieval tool to automatically transfer information from these forms to the FAFSA form. However, not all students will be able to take advantage of this tool. Learn more about whether the IRS data retrieval tool can help you, here.

  • A copy of your parents’ foreign tax returns, if they live outside the United States or in Puerto Rico
  • Your own tax records, if you recently filed a return
  • Records of any untaxed income in your family such as Social Security, welfare benefits, or veterans benefits
  • A record of your and/or your parents’ assets
  • A list of the schools you have applied to, will apply to, or might apply to

Do I already have a Federal Student Aid ID?

If you’ve submitted the FAFSA in past years, you should already have a Federal Student Aid ID (or FSA ID). If you need to create one, you can do so here.

You’ll use your FSA ID each year you submit a FAFSA application, as well as to look up your federal loans once you graduate, so be sure to note your username and password somewhere secure.

If you’re a dependent student, your parent or guardian will also need to create an FSA ID, and you cannot do so on their behalf.

Do I need a parent’s help to apply for FAFSA?

If you’re classified as a dependent for the FAFSA, you will likely need your parents’ help filling out the FAFSA, especially for the sections pertaining to their assets.

It’s best to set up a time to sit down with them and fill out the application in one go.

Which schools should I apply to?

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid doesn’t cost a thing, so you can (and should) provide your information to as many schools as you’re even remotely interested in attending (if you’d like to provide your FAFSA info to more than 10 schools, follow these steps).

College applications, on the other hand, come with application fees averaging $40, with many schools charging $75 or more, according to U.S. News & World Report. So applying to every college or university you might conceivably be interested in could be prohibitively expensive.

It goes without saying that what you’ll pay to apply to colleges pales in comparison to all of the expenses you’ll rack up getting your degree.

Fortunately, there are many tools available to help students get a sense of not only the cost of their degree but the quality of the education they can expect to receive. These tools can help students minimize the student loan debt they take on and maximize their ability to repay it.

The Department of Education’s College Scorecard offers data on 7,000 schools, with thousands of data points providing insight key performance indicators like college completion rates, debt and repayment statistics, and post-college earnings.

College Scorecard will let you check an individual school’s net price by income, the typical debt load of graduates, graduation rate, median earnings 10 years after entering school, size and makeup of the student body, and available academic programs.

What are the federal codes for the schools I’m applying to?

As mentioned, university financial aid offices use the FAFSA to compile each student’s financial aid package, so you’ll need to indicate which schools your FAFSA should be sent to. The FAFSA asks for federal school codes, which you can look up here.

Even if you’re not 100% sure about which schools you’re applying to, come up with a shortlist of up to 10 schools and get your application submitted early—you can always update it later.

Have I entered my information correctly?

Once all of your answers are in, it’s important that you review the entire application for accuracy, before submitting the form.

As you’re filling out the application, remember that you can always call the FAFSA hotline at 1-800-433-3243 for official answers to any questions or concerns.

Does my Student Aid Report reflect my application accurately?

Once you’ve submitted your FAFSA, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) by email (if you’ve provided an email address on your application) or by snail mail.

Electronic SARs are sent anywhere between three days and three weeks from when you apply, depending on whether you’ve applied online or on paper, and whether you’ve supplied an email address.

As long as your application is complete, your SAR will include an Expected Family Contribution, which is used to determine your eligibility for both federal and institutional need-based aid. Once you receive your SAR, review it in detail to make sure all of the information is correct.

What you won’t have, until schools send you an aid offer, are the cost of attendance, and grants and scholarships that they’re able to provide to you. To estimate your net cost — the amount that you’ll have to pay out of pocket, or borrow — look for online net price calculators on each school’s website (you’ll often find links to a school’s net price calculator on College Scorecard).

If you want to compare multiple schools, College Abacus connects with net price calculators at more than 5,000 schools in real time.

Do I need to make corrections, updates, or complete a verification process?

If there is an error on your SAR or your situation has changed, you can make certain changes on fafsa.gov or by mail. Some schools may ask you to verify the accuracy of the information submitted on your FAFSA, so it’s important to double check each answer.

Congrats! Now get ready to re-submit your FAFSA next year (remember, you can begin submitting applications for the 2018-2019 academic year on Oct. 1, 2017.)

Getting through the FAFSA is no small achievement, but keep in mind you’ll have to go through the same process each year you’re in school, so use this year as a learning experience to make it easier in the future.

If you had trouble locating the appropriate documents, perhaps add a copy of each document to a FAFSA folder as you come across it—for example, when you file your taxes. Similarly, if you had a number of corrections to make after receiving your SAR, think about how you can be more careful to avoid unnecessary steps in following years.

With the careful completion of the FAFSA each year, you’ll be considered for the large majority of federal and private funding for school, so it’s well worth your time to fill it out as you progress through school.

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