The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the one application you’ll need to submit in order to be considered for all forms of federal aid. If you’re interested in financial aid at all (even if you’re thinking about private funding sources or school-based aid), it’s of the utmost importance you submit one of these applications.
The application itself seems daunting at first, but with a little bit of forethought and a few hours of your time, you’ll be able to complete it successfully! I'll start off this post with some info about the FASFA, before moving on to step-by-step instructions on how to apply for FAFSA. Finally, I'll give you some tips on what you should be doing after your submit your FAFSA.
Ready to get some financial aid? We'll present everything you must know in order to apply most successfully.
Why Is the FAFSA Important?
As I'm sure you already know, attending college in the US is pretty expensive. Prohibitively so, actually, for a lot of students - in fact, most US college students have some sort of financial aid. When you submit a FAFSA, you're taking a step in mitigating some of these expenses.
This application will open up opportunities for both federal and non-federal aid. The aid programs you're automatically considered for include:
- Stafford loans
Non-federal aid opportunities come mostly in the form of institutional aid. Schools use information generated by the FAFSA to award college-specific grants and scholarships. Private need-based scholarship programs also often require applicants to complete a FAFSA (for example, the Gates Millennium Scholarship).
All in all, it's a really versatile application, and one of the most important parts of applying for financial aid for college. Now that you're excited about your own FAFSA let's talk about how to submit one!
How Do You Submit a FAFSA?
Follow these step-by-step instructions to successfully submit a FAFSA.
Step 1: Check Your Deadlines
There are different deadlines you should be aware of: federal and state. The deadline for federal funding for the 2015-2016 school year is June 30, 2016, whereas the deadline for 2016-2017 is June 30, 2017. You may be able to get federal aid even after you’ve finished your year at school (if you’re a current college student), so it could be worth your while to apply later on if you’ve already missed the state application window.
Different states (if you also want to be considered for state funding) have different deadlines for applying for student aid. You can check the deadline for your state here.
In general, though, it's better to apply well in advance of these deadlines. Some aid programs run out of funding earlier rather than later - like the Perkins Loan program - so try to get your FAFSA in as early as possible. The application opened January 1 for the 2015-2016 academic year; schools won't use the information from your FAFSA until after you're admitted. You won't lose out on any opportunities if you don't submit your FAFSA on January 1, but try to get it in by early spring.
Step 2: Gather All the Information You'll Need
Perhaps the most tedious part of completing a FAFSA is hunting down all the relevant financial information you need for the application. If you gather this information ahead of time, though, sitting down to complete the actual app should be a cinch. Here's everything you need in order to fill out a complete FAFSA.
From your own personal records, you'll need:
- Social Security Number
- Alien Registration Number (if you're not a US citizen)
- Most recent federal tax returns, W-2s, and other records of income
- Bank statements and investment records (if applicable)
- Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
- A FSA ID to sign electronically (if you're submitting the application online). You can create a FSA ID.
Your parents' financial information is also considered when determining your aid eligibility, even if they won't be helping you pay for school. Because of this, you'll also need to gather all of the above information from your parents as well. Here's exactly what you'll need from parents or guardians:
- If your parents are married, gather information for both of them.
- If your parent is widowed or single, you'll just need information from that one parent.
- If your widowed parent is currently remarried, you'll need information from your parent and your parent's spouse.
- If your parents are divorced or separated, you'll need information from your custodial parent (the parent you've lived with the most within the past year). If your parents have joint custody, and you spend time between them equally, you need information from the parent who's supported you the most financially.
Some FAFSA applicants qualify for what's called a dependency override - this is when parents' financial information is not taken into account when determining federal aid eligibility. Most of the time, this means that applicants are eligible for more aid. If you think you might qualify for a dependency override, you should gather any supporting documentation around those circumstances as well as any relevant financial information. Common override situations include being married, having kids, being in foster care, and being legally emancipated. Just answer questions about these circumstances honestly on your FAFSA - the application will process as incomplete, and you’ll need to follow up with the financial aid office of the school you’re seeking an aid package from.
One last thing - If you’re a male between the ages of 18-25 and living in the US, you'll need to be registered for Selective Service in order to submit a FAFSA. Selective Service is essentially a registry of all men eligible to be called for a military draft in an emergency. You can register in just a few minutes.
Step 3: Choose Your Submission Method
Got all that paperwork ready? Now comes the easy part - choosing how you'll submit your FAFSA. You have a couple of different options: electronic submission and paper submission. I'll discuss the pros and cons of both.
It's generally easier to submit your FAFSA online than it is to send in a paper copy. Just be aware that if you have a tight submission timeline, you should apply for a FSA ID for you and your parents ahead of time - you need a FSA ID to sign the FAFSA electronically, and it can take about three days to come in.
The electronic version of the app tends to guide you through the application process pretty well, and can even catch minor errors as you complete it. You'll also get fast results with this submission method - you'll receive a SAR (student aid report) containing the results of your FAFSA in about 3 days.
Nothing against snails, but snail mail is not a good option if you're rushing to submit your FAFSA.
Paper FAFSAs are a bit more cumbersome than the electronic version, take the longer to file, and are more prone to error - all of these factors will delay your application process. This is not a good option if you're tight on time.
If you do want to submit a paper FAFSA, you can find copies at high school guidance offices, college financial aid offices, or at local libraries. You can also download and print the application yourself.
Step 4: Set a Time to Complete the Application
This is one application you don't want to procrastinate completing.
As I mentioned earlier, you'll likely need a lot of information from your parents or guardians to properly fill out the application. The form will be much easier to complete if you can sit down with them, completing each section together.
The electronic FAFSA should take about 1-2 hours, and the paper FAFSA a bit longer than that. You don’t need an accountant or financial aid consultant in order to fill out the FAFSA, but if you do have access to these resources, they should be able to assist you with any questions.
Strategies for a Winning FAFSA Application
From a wide variety of students, we've gathered a few tips that will max your reward. You absolutely must do these, or at least be aware for them.
First, you should file early because certain scholarships are first-come-first-serve. Applications become available much sooner than they're due, and you're well off using last years application as a mock up to submit as soon as possible.
Second, it's important that you file even if you're not sure whether you'll get the aid. The amount of money is huge in comparison to the amount of time it'll take you. Some families earning up to even $200K/year will qualify for aid.
Also, as with all forms, you must do your best to fill out the form completely. Technical glitches will delay or even stop your application. Double check every line, every blank for precision. This is a lot of money on the line here folks -- it's well worth your time.
Finally, for many need base calculations, you'll do well to have as little savings in the child's name as possible. The child is expected to put a larger fraction of his/her savings into education versus the parents assets. Move money out of children's banks accounts. Likewise, parents will do well to reduce the savings amount that shows up on the file. Parents can do things like paying down debt to reduce their assets. Of course, be sure not to be penny-wise pound-foolish -- don't just go wasting money, but do understand the optics of where your money is will affect the aid given!
What Do You Do After You Submit the FAFSA?
The hard stuff is done - you've done the tedious work of gathering intel from financial records and answered each question on the application. There's not much left to do, but it's important to stay on top of tracking the status of your application. If there are any problems with the processing of your FAFSA, these next steps will help you get back on track in no time.
Within 3-5 days, you will receive an email with directions to access your SAR, or Student Aid Report. The colleges you listed on your FAFSA will have access to your SAR shortly after you do. If your application were complete, your SAR would include an EFC, or Expected Family Contribution. The EFC is a number used by your school to calculate the amount of federal aid you are eligible to receive, not necessarily the amount of money your family will have to pay. If you're interested in learning more about the EFC and how it affects financial aid awards, check out our Pell Grant guide.
You can check the status of your application (if there are any delays) by calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center (1.800.433.3243), or by logging in to the FAFSA website with your FSA ID.
Your Financial Aid Package
Your school will use the information generated from your FAFSA to generate a financial aid offer, which can include grants, loans, and scholarships. You’ll then make a decision about what aid to accept.
If you’re offered grants, you should accept in pretty much all cases (it’s free money). It might be prudent to discuss with family about what loan offers you’d like to accept. For example, you should discuss whether you're happy with the loan terms and interest rates and if it's important that you take out those loans in order to afford college. The financial aid office at your school will explain how and when you’ll get any money awarded to you, and whether you will need to take any further steps.
The FAFSA is a particularly useful application - in submitting it, you'll be considered for the Pell Grant, Perkins loan, Direct Subsidized loan, and Direct Unsubsidized loan. Read more about each program by clicking the link.
If you want to learn more about how much money you'll actually need for college (after you get any federal financial aid), read our guide on what college really costs.
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Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.