If you're applying for the Pell Grant, it's important to know where the application is and how to submit it.
Here's a secret: there's actually no dedicated or special application for the Pell Grant - instead, students are automatically considered for this federal aid program when they submit their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
But the FAFSA can be complicated for a lot of students since it requires info about your family and financial situation. Follow the steps in this guide in order to submit your FAFSA to apply for a Pell Grant!
Here, we'll cover:
- Things to keep in mind before you get started
- Checking your Pell Grant deadlines
- The information you'll need to complete the FAFSA
- Submission methods
- Completing the Pell Grant application
- What to do after you submit the FAFSA
- Common submission questions
What You Should Know Before You Get Started
To be considered for ANY type of federal student aid, including the Pell Grant, you have to submit a FAFSA - there's no way around it. The good news is that many states, colleges, and universities also use information generated by the FAFSA to award other types of aid.
This is good news for you! By applying for the Pell Grant, you're submitting an application that could also help you get other types of financial aid.
More good news: it's completely free to submit the FAFSA (like it states in the name). Even if you're not sure whether you'd qualify for financial aid, you have nothing to lose by submitting the application except a few hours of your time. That could definitely be worth extra help paying for college.
Finally, you should know that the FAFSA needs to be submitted annually. If you're awarded a Pell Grant one year, for example, you won't automatically receive the grant every year.
Step 1: Check Your Deadlines
You don't want to leave things for the last minute.
How late can you submit your application?
The only Pell Grant deadline you need to worry about is the federal aid application deadline. If you hope to look into state aid as well, you also need to be aware of your state's aid application deadline.
The deadline to submit your FAFSA for federal funding for the 2015-2016 school year is June 30, 2016. You may be able to get federal aid even if you submit your application at the end of your school year.
States have different application deadlines for submitting the FAFSA. You can check the deadline for your state here.
When should you start the application process?
Generally, the earlier you can submit your application, the better. First-time college students usually submit their FAFSAs after they've been accepted to schools; these schools use information generated from the FAFSA to put together financial aid packages.
You can technically submit your FAFSA as early as January 1 for the year you're entering college. Schools won't use this information, however, until after you've been admitted. If you're a current college student, you can better take advantage of this earlier timeline.
It's easy to put off completing the FAFSA until you have to meet a federal or state deadline - don't do this. Some federal funding sources run out early in the application process, so it's best to apply earlier in order to maximize access to funding.
Bottom line: If you're a first-time college student, plan on submitting your FAFSA immediately after you get your acceptance letters. If you're a current college student, take advantage of an earlier timeline, and apply in the spring for the following academic year.
Step 2: Gather All the Information You'll Need
Here's a comprehensive list of everything you need to get started with the FAFSA application:
- Social Security Number
- Alien Registration Number (if you're not a US citizen)
- Most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of income
- Bank statements and investment records (if you have them)
- Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
- An FSA ID, if you plan on submitting online (we'll get to submission methods in a minute). You can get a FSA ID here.
You'll also need all of the above information from your parents, even if they won't be helping you pay for school. Your parents' financial information is also taken into account when determining how much aid you may be eligible for. Here's some more specific information about getting what you need (everything listed above) from your parents:
- If your parents are married, gather information for both of them
- If your parent is widowed or single, you just need information from that one parent
- If your widowed parent is currently remarried, you need information from that parent + his or her spouse
- If your parents are divorced or separated, you need information from your custodial parent (the parent you lived with the most in the past year).
- If your parents have joint custody and you've spent equal time with them during the past year, you need information from the parent who's supported you the most financially.
There are some special circumstances which may warrant what's called a dependecy override, where your parents' financial information is not taken into account when you apply for federal aid. Common dependency override situations include being married, having kids, homelessness, military service, being in the foster care system, or legal emancipation.
If you think you could qualify for a dependency override, you should also gather any important documentation around your special circumstances (for example, any paperwork that would support your claims).
Just answer the questions about these circumstances honestly when you fill out 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.
Step 3: Choose Your Submission Method
Choose the path that works best for you.
There are two main methods to submit your FAFSA and apply for a Pell Grant. Here, I'll discuss the pros and cons of both methods.
The electronic version of the FAFSA is easier and faster than the paper version. The FAFSA website guides you through the application process, and can even notify you about certain errors in real time.
You'll receive the results from your submission - a document that tells you about your eligbility for different types of financial aid - in about 3 days. This document is called a Student Aid Report, or SAR.
If you plan on submitting your FAFSA online, apply for a FSA ID for you and your parents first! You need a FSA to sign the electronic FAFSA - it can take up to three days to receive your FSA ID, so build this into your timeline.
You can access the elctronic version of the FAFSA here.
Paper FAFSAs are a bit more cumbersome than the electronic version, and take longer to file (it can be weeks before you get your SAR). Applicants also make more mistakes on the paper FAFSA, and mistakes delay the processing of your application.
You should avoid paper submission if you are at all tight on time.
You can get a paper copy of the FAFSA at high school guidance offices, college financial aid offices, and at many libraries. You can also download and print a copy of the application yourself here.
Step 4: Set Up a Time to Complete Your Application
If you've already collected all the necessary paperwork and chosen a submission method, completing the actual application shouldn't be too difficult. You've already done most of the legwork!
As I mentioned above, you need a lot of information from your parents in order to successfully complete the FAFSA. If possible, set up a time when you can go through the application together with your parents - this can help streamline the process if you have questions for them.
Schedule 1-2 hours if you are submitting the application electronically. Give yourself some extra time (2-3 hours) if you are submitting a paper application.
Side note: 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.
Step 5: After You Submit
The good news: if you submitted a complete FAFSA, you'll be automatically considered for a Pell Grant - no further work required!
You should receive an email within 3-5 days of submission including directions to access your SAR (if you submitted electronically - if not, the process will take longer). The colleges you listed on your FAFSA will have access to your SAR shortly after you do.
If your application was complete, your SAR will include something called an EFC, or Expected Family Contribution. The EFC is a number used by schools to put together financial aid packages, which can include grants, loans, and scholarships. If you are offered the Pell Grant, it will be included in schools' financial aid packages.
If you ever need to check the status of your application, you can call the Federal Student Aid Information center at 1-800-433-3243. You can also log in to the FAFSA website with your FSA ID.
Common Questions on the Pell Grant Application
This process can be confusing - hopefully all your questions are answered here!
I submitted a FAFSA last year. Do I have to do it again for this upcoming school year?
Answer: Yes! You need to apply for aid every year. See Step #1 above for a guide on submission timelines.
My brother/sister already submitted a FAFSA this year. Do I need to do one too?
Answer: Yes - even though it might seem redundant (you're submitting the same family information, right?) each person applying for aid needs to submit their own FAFSA.
I want to submit my FAFSA before my family's tax returns are ready. Can I do that?
Answer: You can! You'll just need to make estimates about this information as best you can (your parents should be able to help with this). You'll have to update your application if necessary.
I want to make changes to my FAFSA after I submitted it. How do I do that?
Answer: You'll have to wait until after you've received your SAR before you can make changes. You can use your FSA ID to make corrections on the FAFSA website, and should receive a new SAR shortly thereafter. You can also make changes to the paper SAR if you originally submitted via snail mail - just follow instructions on the SAR, send it back in, and wait for a new SAR to be generated.
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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.