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If you’re planning on going to college, you’re heading toward an exciting time in your life. Your college career will be full of new experiences, new friends, and a great education.
However, figuring out how to pay for college can cause some headaches. One of the best ways to get started is by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It’s an essential first step toward getting federal grants, enrolling in work-study programs, and even receiving federal student loans.
Unfortunately, many students overlook the FAFSA because it has an unearned reputation for being difficult to fill out. In fact, students missed out on over $2.3 billion in free college aid last year because they skipped the FAFSA.
You can avoid that mistake by filling out the application as early as you can. The FAFSA is easier than ever before; you can even fill it out it from your cell phone!
If you’re not sure how to get started, follow these steps to complete the FAFSA accurately.
1. Know the FAFSA deadlines
It’s important to submit the FAFSA as early as possible to ensure you get all the aid to which you’re entitled. However, there are some key deadlines you should know.
For the 2020-2021 school year, online FAFSA applications must be submitted by midnight Central Time, June 30, 2021.
However, states and individual schools can have their own deadlines. It’s a good idea to check with a school’s financial aid office to get its exact FAFSA deadline. You can find out details about your state’s deadline through the Office of Federal Student Aid.
2. Create a FSA ID
You’ll use a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID to access federal sites like https://studentaid.ed.gov/. It’s a unique username and password the government uses to confirm your identity.
You can create a FSA ID online at FSAID.ed.gov.
You’ll be prompted to enter your email, username, and password.
Next, you’ll be asked to enter your first name, middle initial, last name, date of birth, and Social Security number.
You’ll then be asked to enter a mobile phone number in case you need to recover your account, and you’ll have to answer some security questions to verify your information. Finally, the site will ask you to confirm your information. Then, your FSA ID is created.
3. Gather information
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the FAFSA application takes an hour or less to complete. Having all of the necessary information on hand can help expedite the process, so make sure you have the following nearby:
- Your Social Security number
- Your federal income tax returns, W2 statements, or other records of money earned—due to a recent change in the FAFSA, applicants must use their second-most recent tax returns. People filling out the 2020-2021 FAFSA must use 2018 returns.
- Bank statements and records of investments
- Records of untaxed income
- Your FSA ID
4. Visit FAFSA.gov
Once you have your FSA ID and necessary information handy, it’s time to start your FAFSA. To get started, just visit FAFSA.gov, and click on “Start Here.”
Either the student or their parent or guardian can complete the FAFSA. Select which fits your situation, then enter your FSA ID.
5. Enter necessary information
When completing the FAFSA, make sure your information matches that on your Social Security card exactly. Avoid using nicknames or any other variations to avoid problems with your financial aid.
Student demographic information
The student demographic section is very straightforward. It asks for basic information about the student, including:
- Social Security number: If you are a U.S. citizen, you’ll enter your Social Security number. If you’re an eligible non-citizen, you’ll instead enter your Alien Registration number.
- Permanent mailing address: Enter the address where you receive your mail, such as your tax returns or mailing registration. If you’re in transitional housing or have another situation where you don’t have a permanent mailing address, contact your selected school’s financial aid office to find out how to proceed.
- State of residence: To qualify for in-state tuition, grants, and other forms of aid, you have to have lived in the state in question for at least five years. If you have lived in the state that long, answer “yes.” If not, answer “no,” and the FAFSA will prompt you to enter the other states you’ve lived in.
- Phone number and email address
- Driver’s license number
- Marital status: The application will ask your marital status as of the date of your application.
- Eligibility status: The application will prompt you to enter information about your eligibility, such as when you will graduate high school/what year of college you’ll be entering, and what degree you’re working toward.
Next, you’ll be asked to list the schools you’re interested in attending. You can list up to 10 schools at a time on your FAFSA. It’s important to include every school you’re even thinking of applying to, so that you can be considered for financial aid.
To add a college or university, the application will prompt you to enter the school’s Federal School Code. If you don’t know it offhand, you can search for the school by name.
When you add the school, you’ll also be asked to enter your housing plans if you end up attending that college. You have three options:
- On campus: Select this option if you plan to live in the college dorms or other school-offered housing.
- Home with parents: Choose this option if you will live with a parent or guardian.
- Off campus: Select this option if you plan on obtaining your own housing off the school grounds.
It doesn’t matter in which order you list the schools, so don’t worry about placing your first-choice school first.
For the FAFSA, you’re either a dependent or independent student. Your status is a classification used solely for FAFSA and is used to determine what information you must provide. If you’re a dependent student for FAFSA purposes, you’ll have to include your parent’s demographic information and financials.
If none of the listed questions apply to you, you are a dependent student. If you check off any boxes, you’re an independent.
Parent demographic information
If you’re a dependent student, you’ll enter your parent’s demographic information next, even if you don’t live with your parents anymore. You’ll be asked the following questions:
- Your parents’ marital status
- When they were married
- Social Security numbers and birthdates of both parents
- Parents’ email addresses
- Parents’ state of residence
- How many people are in your parents’ household(s)
- How many people in the household will be in college
- If your parents receive or have received federal benefits, such as Medicaid
- Parents’ income
- Parents’ adjusted gross income on their tax returns
If you’re an independent student, you’ll be asked to complete a separate financial section. You’ll be asked:
- How many people are in your household?
- How many people in your household will be college students?
- Did anyone in your household receive federal benefits?
6. Sign and submit your FAFSA
Once you have filled in all of the necessary information, you’ll be asked to sign and date the form. Review the information carefully; you are certifying that all of the information is true and accurate. When you’re sure everything is correct, go ahead and submit the form.
What happens next
Once you complete and submit your FAFSA, there’s a few next steps that occur before you receive your financial aid.
1. You’ll get an SAR report
Once you complete the FAFSA, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). If you provided an email address on your FAFSA, you’ll receive the SAR via email. If not, you’ll receive a paper report in the mail.
The SAR is a summary of the information you entered on your FAFSA. It gives you a chance to review your information and identify any errors that may appear. If you need to make corrections, you can do so at FAFSA.gov.
In some cases, your SAR may indicate that your FAFSA has been selected for verification. That means you may need to provide additional documentation to back up the information you listed on your FAFSA, such as W2 forms to prove your income.
2. You’ll find out your Expected Family Contribution
On the top right of your SAR, you’ll see your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is a measure the Office of Federal Student Aid uses to calculate how much your family can afford to contribute toward your education.
Your family’s income, assets, size, and college expenses are all considered when deciding your EFC.
3. Schools will review your information
Schools use the information listed on the SAR and your EFC to determine what federal aid you’ll receive as part of your total financial aid package. Your financial aid package could contain a mix of scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and student loans, which you automatically are considered for when you apply to the school.
You’ll typically receive information about your financial aid along with your college acceptance notification in the form of a offer or award letter.
Below is what an award letter typically looks like.
4. You accept the aid
Once you’ve decided which school you want to attend, it’s important to follow the instructions listed on your award letter and stick to the school’s deadline. The school will provide information on how to accept or deny your financial aid package.
Getting financial aid
Completing the FAFSA is an essential first step in paying for college. By taking the time to review each step, you can be sure that you’ll fill out the application accurately, helping you get all the aid to which you’re entitled.
If after completing the FAFSA and receiving your school award letters you still need help paying for school, private student loans can help fill the gap. Good luck!
Questions about FAFSA? Talk to an expert.