• Your application is processed by the U.S. Department of Education within three to five days if you submitted your FAFSA online using FAFSA on the web.
  • On the other hand, if you submitted a paper FAFSA, your application will be processed within seven to 10 days.

Early on in my admission career, we’d tell families to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) starting January 1, then promised all families that they’d get their aid packages in March. Now, you can file the FAFSA starting October 1 — almost a year before your kiddo heads off to college!

So what does that mean? First, you’re so relieved once you file the FAFSA. You’ve taken care of that giant hurdle. But then what? You twiddle your thumbs and then eventually get a financial aid award? It’s not like booking a trip — the FAFSA results aren’t instantaneous.

So how long does the FAFSA take to process? Great question. The short answer is that it varies. Here’s what you can expect.

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What is the FAFSA?

Let’s backtrack a second. What is the FAFSA, anyway? The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form you must fill out if you want financial aid from the federal government for college. Many, many students (over 13 million!) receive federal aid in the form of grants, work-study and loans through the U.S. Department of Education.

The FAFSA asks for information about you and your family’s finances, including tax returns.

Quick facts about the FAFSA

Filing the FAFSA isn’t as painful as you might think — and if it’s something you’re positively sure you cannot do, there are lots of resources out there to help you file it. You can even reach out to the financial aid office at a college your student is considering for step-by-step help in many cases. Here are some absolute truths about the FAFSA:

  • You or your student must file the FAFSA if you want your student to receive any kind of federal student aid.
  • Slam on the brakes if you pay any money at all to have it filed or file it for a fee online. The FAFSA is a FREE application — remember, that’s the first word in the name — Free Application for Federal Student Aid)!
  • You may have to get a tiny bit used to it. You’ll need to file the FAFSA every year that your child attends college. The deadline is different for every school, but many schools put the final deadline at July 1 of the year that your child will attend college. Check with each college on that final deadline.
  • Our financial aid office always said, “Never, ever use your child’s high school email address when you file the FAFSA.” It was solid advice, because your kiddo will lose that email address and you need to be able to use a current email address.

How long does it take the FAFSA to process?

Here’s how long it’ll take in a nutshell: 

  • Your application is processed by the U.S. Department of Education within three to five days if you submitted your FAFSA online using FAFSA on the web.
  • On the other hand, if you submitted a paper FAFSA, your application will be processed within seven to 10 days.

Step 1: Check your Student Aid Report (SAR). 

Next, you’ll receive a copy of your Student Aid Report (SAR), which summarizes everything you put on your FAFSA. Check your personalized SAR and make sure every piece of information is accurate.

Step 2: Fix missing or incorrect information.

Finish or correct your FAFSA as soon as possible. FAFSA will have information on how to do that.

Step 3: Wait a bit more — we know, we know. Colleges must get your SAR first.

When you file the FAFSA, you can list the colleges you want to have receive your SAR. Each college determines your eligibility for financial aid using your SAR. Next, you’ll receive a financial aid award from schools you’ve applied to, sent your FAFSA to and have demonstrated your commitment to.

Buddy up with the financial aid office at the colleges on your shortlist to find out if there’s anything you need to do.

Every school’s timeline for releasing financial aid is different — so send your admission counselor an email, hop on a call or call the school’s admission office to find out when you’ll get yours.

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What happens after the FAFSA processes?

The next step is an exciting one — you’ll get your financial aid award! Cue all the cheers! Here’s what to do once you get financial aid awards in the mail.

Step 1: Look at each financial aid award in detail.

Take a deep look at each financial aid award you receive. Analyze each one in detail and  line-by-line. You may see a few terms you’ve never experienced before, so we’ll break them wide open here.

Cost of attendance (COA)

This is simple to understand! (Whew!) It involves tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and any other cost of attendance requirements for a college. You might need to check a college’s website to find out the full cost of attendance.

Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

EFC is a number that a college uses to determine how much financial aid you’re eligible for. Don’t let this number scare you — it’s often high. It’s not how much you’ll have to pay for college.

Grants and scholarships

I lumped grants and scholarships together because neither needs to be repaid. But there’s a difference between the two — grants equal need-based aid offered by the federal or state government. Scholarships don’t have to be repaid and can be based on need, merit (as in, your child is an A+ student) or interest (which means your child gets a scholarship because of his awesome tuba playing).

Federal work-study

Your child can work to earn money through his or her school with work-study. Did you know that the federal government offers work-study — not the school? There’s usually a limit to the amount your kiddo can get through work-study (like $1,000 or $2,000), but here’s a little-known secret: Ask for more. The financial aid office at your son or daughter’s school might be able to offer you a little extra.

Federal student loans

These are listed on your financial aid award, too, and this simply means your child can get a loan from the federal government. 

You might be wondering about credit-based loans like a federal Direct PLUS loan or a private student loan and why I didn’t list them. I didn’t because they may or may not be listed on a financial aid award. The remaining balance is almost always listed, and you can use private loans toward that remaining balance. Ask the admission counselor or financial aid professional at each school you’re considering for more information.

Step 2: Compare each award.

This is where you’ll have to sit down and actually compare costs. You’ll want to be sure you have the exact tuition, room board and fees for every school, each scholarship in its exact amount and everything else. Check out College Board’s college cost comparison tool — all you have to do is plug in the data and it’ll tell you exactly which school will cost you more and less.

It’ll take a while to plug in, so be sure you take your time and get every single number exactly right so you know the true costs of each institution. Don’t use the institution’s published average for loans and scholarships, etc. Use your very own numbers so you know how much it’ll cost you, down to the penny.

Step 3: Take a deep breath.

It looks like a lot of money, doesn’t it? It is. (There’s no beating around the bush.)

But remember, the key is to break it down! Break it down, break it down. We talk a lot about breaking it down on this website, and that’s because it works. Take that leftover amount and figure out how you’ll break it down. Here are some ideas for whittling away whatever scholarships, grants, student loans and other aid don’t cover: 

  • Use your child’s summer earnings to pay toward the cost.
  • You or your child can do a side hustle for extra money — this is a gig economy, remember? Check out an article I wrote for MSN Money about side hustles.
  • Savings you already have in a savings account, 529 plan, CD — wherever you’ve got investments. Just don’t sacrifice your retirement for college savings.
  • Take advantage of a 10-month payment plan (or whatever type of payment plan is available to you through your child’s school). This breaks it way down and makes the final amount a lot easier to swallow.
  • Take one less vacation per year (or two!)
  • Use private loans to cover the remaining balance.

Can you think of some other ways to take that remaining balance and make it bite-sized? YOU can do this!

Step 4: Help your child make a decision.

It’s so hard to relinquish complete control, isn’t it? You want with all your heart for your child to make the right decision and avoid the stress of transferring to a different school later on. Put everything on the table (literally!) and have a frank conversation about family finances.

Remember, it’s probably a good idea to make sure the final decision rests on your son or daughter’s shoulders. He or she will ultimately own the college experience when it’s his or her decision. 

Patience is the key — trust the process!

The college search process might seem like the entire THING is a hurry-up-and-wait scenario, especially when you’re wondering, “How long does the FAFSA take to process?”

I get it. It was tough to answer questions in the admission office when families would ask me, “So, how much longer till I get my financial aid award?”

It’ll get here soon enough. Soon, you’ll be weeping through an entire box of Kleenex at graduation. Trust me.

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