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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:
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 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).
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. 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.
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 state 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 or the new myStudentAid mobile app 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 should not submit the FAFSA to the Department of Education. You may qualify for in-state tuition, or aid from you state or college that’s earmarked for undocumented immigrants. In some cases, schools may ask you to fill out a printed version of the FAFSA to calculate your expected family contribution and determine what aid you qualify for.
When is the FAFSA due and when can I start applying for financial aid?
You can submit your FAFSA for the 2020-2021 academic year starting October 1, 2019. A lot of financial aid is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis, so it’s wise to submit your forms as soon as possible once the application window opens.
The 2020-2021 FAFSA deadline is midnight Central Time, June 30, 2021. Remember that states and colleges have earlier deadlines, so the sooner, the better. You can find your state’s student aid deadline here.
The FAFSA deadline for the 2019-2020 academic year is midnight Central Time, June 30, 2020.
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:
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:
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):
*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.
You might want to set up a time to sit down with them and fill out the application in one go.
But the mobile app, new for 2018, allows students and parents to start the FAFSA on the app or a desktop computer, and finish it on another device. You don’t have to be in front of the same computer at the same time to collaborate!
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?
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 percent 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 2020-2021 academic year on Oct. 1, 2019.)
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 state funding for school, so it’s well worth your time to fill it out as you progress through school.
One of the first steps in securing financial aid for a college education is filling out the FAFSA form. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It is the form used by the U.S. Department of Education to determine the Expected Family Contribution—or how much your family is expected to pay toward college tuition and expenses. Nearly all colleges and universities use the FAFSA application during the financial aid process to determine eligibility for federal, state, and college sponsored financial aid including grants, student loans and work-study programs.
Best Tips for Filling out FAFSA
Now that you understand what the FAFSA is and its importance in the financial aid process, you’ll want to know the correct way of filling it out. Filling out the FAFSA form does not need to be overwhelming or confusing. Use these tips for filling out the FAFSA to make the process smooth and headache free.
1. Set up an FSA ID
An FSA ID is your Federal Student Aid Identification. You will need to set up a username and password that will give you access to US Department of Education websites. Your FSA ID identifies you as someone who can view personal information on ED websites including the FAFSA.
2. Gather Documents
There are various documents needed for properly filling out the FAFSA application. Have all of these documents on hand before sitting down to fill out the application:
- Your Social Security Number
- Your parent’s Social Security numbers (if you are a dependent student)
- Your driver’s license number (if you have one)
- Your Alien Registration number (if you are not a US citizen)
- Federal tax information or tax returns for the past two years. You’ll need your parent’s and your own if you are a dependent student, or your spouse’s if you are married.
- Records of any untaxed income including: child support, alimony, interest income and veterans non-education benefits.
- Information on your current assets including checking and savings accounts, stocks and bonds, real estate ( not including the home you live in.)
You will need to gather this information for both you and your parents if you are a dependent student, or for you and your spouse, if you are married. If you are single and cannot be claimed as a dependent your will only need your information for each item listed above.
3. Fill out the FAFSA application
The next step is to actually fill out the FAFSA application. You will do this by going to www.fafsa.gov and click on ‘Start a New FAFSA’.
Here are the following steps you will take:
- Fill in your personal information including your name, social security number and other identifying details.
- You will list colleges and schools to receive information from your FAFSA form. You can list up to 10 schools if you have not decided which institution you’d like to attend yet.
- You will have to determine your dependency status, whether you are a dependent or independent student.
- If you are a dependent student you will report your parents’
- You will enter in all of your financial information.
- You will sign and submit your FAFSA form.
Overall, filling out the FAFSA can be a streamlined process. As long as you prepare yourself beforehand, you should have no issues filling out the application. Collect the appropriate documentation and have the list of schools you want to send your FAFSA to before starting the application.