If you’ll soon be heading off to college and still haven’t filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), deadlines set by many states and schools to apply for financial aid are fast approaching (see below).

When is FAFSA due?

The Department of Education started taking FAFSAs for the 2017-2018 school year on Oct. 1, 2016. That’s three months earlier than the old Jan. 1 opening of the application window. Because families will use their 2015 tax information, you’ll be able to retrieve information already on file with the IRS using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), and transfer it directly into your online FAFSA form.

Why should I fill out the FAFSA?

You’ll probably want to fill out the FAFSA regardless of whether you’re hoping to qualify for some of the $150 billion in assistance that the federal government provides to college students each year in the form of grants, work-study, and loans.

That’s because it costs nothing to fill out the FAFSA, and it’s your ticket not only to federal student aid, but financial aid from your state, colleges and other scholarship programs.

Every college you might be interested in should be on your FAFSA. The information you provide on the FAFSA is provided to each school you list on your application, and to higher education agencies in the states where those schools are located. Colleges and state higher education agencies often have their own financial aid programs that you may qualify for. Also keep in mind that at many schools, you can’t be considered for merit-based scholarships unless you’ve submitted a FAFSA.

Before you get started on the FAFSA, you may need tax returns, bank statements, and investment records. It helps to get a FAFSA ID in advance, but you can apply for one with your application. For tips navigating the the form, download Credible’s free FAFSA guide.

Once you’ve gathered everything you’ll need and learned the basics about the process, your best bet is probably to submit your FAFSA online at fafsa.gov, rather than filling out a paper application and mailing it.

The Department of Education says it takes most users less than 30 minutes to fill out the FAFSA online at fafsa.gov, compared to two hours for the paper or PDF version. The online application has built-in help and skip logic, which bypasses question you don’t need to answer. Plus, you’ll be able to track your application’s status, and the schools you list on your application will receive your information sooner.

This video, produced by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid, walks you through the 2017-2018 FAFSA process in just 3 minutes.

Opening up the FAFSA application window in October also has many colleges accelerating their recruitment timeline and acceptances. That means many students will get information on their actual school attendance costs earlier in the process, and have more time to weigh college acceptance letters and aid offers.

While the Department of Education will technically accept FAFSA applications until June 30, 2018, each state and school has its own deadline for applying for aid. Some state deadlines are looming — Tennessee’s is coming Jan. 17, Missouri’s is on Feb. 1, and Connecticut’s deadline for priority consideration is Feb. 15.

Because financial aid is often handed out on a first-come, first-served basis, the earlier you submit, the better.

State deadlines

Alabama
Check with financial aid administrator.

Alaska
Alaska Performance Scholarship: June 30, 2017. Alaska Education Grant: Applications accepted beginning Oct. 1, 2016, funding awarded until fully depleted.

Arizona
Check with financial aid administrator.

Arkansas
Academic Challenge: June 1, 2017. Higher Education Opportunity Grant: June 1, 2016. Higher Education Opportunity Grant: June 1, 2017. Workforce Grant: Check with financial aid administrator.

California
Deadline for Cal Grant and many state financial aid programs is March 2, 2017. Cal Grant requires submission of a school-certified GPA. Obtain proof that you’ve asked your school to mail your GPA and retain a copy of your GPA form. Many community college Cal Grants are not due until Sept. 2, 2017. Non-citizens holding Social Security cards issued through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or for work authorization should fill out the California Dream Act Application at www.caldreamact.org, not the FAFSA. Contact the California Student Aid Commission, www.csac.ca.gov, or your financial aid administrator for more information.

Colorado
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Connecticut
February 15, 2017 for priority consideration.

District of Columbia
May 1, 2017. For DCTAG, complete the DC OneApp and submit supporting documents by May 31, 2017.

Florida
May 15, 2017.

Georgia
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Idaho
Opportunity Grant: March 1, 2017 for priority consideration.

Illinois
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2016 — awards made until funds are depleted.

Indiana
March 10, 2017.

Iowa
July 1, 2017. Earlier priority deadlines may exist for some programs.

Kansas
April 1, 2017 for priority consideration.

Kentucky
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2017. Awards made until funds are depleted.

Louisiana
July 1, 2017 (recommended).

Maine
May 1, 2017.

Maryland
March 1, 2017.

Massachusetts
May 1, 2017 for priority consideration.

Michigan
March 1, 2017.

Minnesota
30 days after term starts.

Mississippi
MTAG and MESG Grants: Sept. 15, 2017.

Missouri
Feb. 1, 2017.

Montana
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Nebraska
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Nevada
Silver State Opportunity Grant: As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2017. Awards made until funds depleted. All other aid: Check with financial aid administrator.

New Hampshire
Check with your financial aid administrator.

New Jersey
2016–2017 Tuition Aid Grant recipients: April 15, 2017. Fall and spring terms: Sept. 15, 2017. For spring term only: Feb. 15, 2018.

New Mexico
Check with your financial aid administrator.

New York
June 30, 2018.

North Carolina
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2016. Awards made until funds are depleted.

North Dakota
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2016. Awards made until funds are depleted.

Ohio
Oct. 1, 2017.

Oklahoma
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2016. Awards made until funds are depleted.

Oregon
OSAC Private Scholarships: March 1, 2017. Oregon Opportunity Grant: As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2016. Awards made until funds are depleted.

Pennsylvania
May 1, 2017 (general). First–time applicants enrolled in a community college, business/trade/technical school, hospital school of nursing, designated Pennsylvania Open-Admission institution, or non-transferable two-year program: Aug. 1, 2017.

Rhode Island
Check with your financial aid administrator.

South Carolina
Tuition Grants: June 30, 2017. South Carolina Commission on Higher Education Need-based Grants: As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2016. Awards made until funds depleted.

South Dakota
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Tennessee
State grants: Jan. 17, 2017. Eligible prior-year recipients receive priority, and all other awards made to neediest applicants until funds are depleted. State Lottery: fall term, Sept. 1, 2017; spring and summer terms, Feb. 1, 2018. Tennessee Promise: Jan. 17, 2017

Texas
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2016. Texas public colleges: March 15, 2017 for priority consideration.
Texas private colleges: Check with your financial aid administrator.

Utah
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Vermont
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2016. Awards made until funds depleted.

Virginia
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Washington
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2016. Awards made until funds depleted.

West Virginia
PROMISE Scholarship: March 1, 2017. New applicants must submit additional application at www.cfwv.com. West Virginia Higher Education Grant Program: April 15, 2017.

Wisconsin
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Wyoming
Check with your financial aid administrator.


Matt Carter is the editor of Credible News, which provides information that consumers need to make decisions about student loans and personal finance. We welcome comments and tips. Email: mcarter@credible.com