The perfect college visit scenario: You crunch through the leaves on a beautiful college campus and listen to a tour guide’s perfect spiel on a 70-degree October day.

The reality: You might’ve had the gorgeous campus tour. But then — you find yourself in the financial aid director’s office. He’s saying words like “FAFSA” and “FSA ID” — and then, he turns you loose. You feel a little… blurry.

A college decision is a thrilling adventure — so let’s keep it that way. We’ll completely demystify the FAFSA for you. 

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What is the Free Application For Student Aid (FASFA)?

The Free Application For Student Aid (FAFSA) is a free application that gives you access to federal and institutional aid to pay for college. You’ll get access to federal grants, work study and loans. Colleges use your FAFSA results to determine your eligibility for different types of aid. Private financial aid providers may also use your FAFSA application to determine whether you qualify for the type of aid they provide as well. 

Still sound a little murky? Never fear — we’ll cover how to file the FAFSA next.

How to fill out the FAFSA

Here are the steps you’ll need to take to fill out the FAFSA — whether you’re a student, parent, guardian, grandparent or if you’re filling it out for yourself.

First, grab a few documents before you even sit down at the computer: 

  • Social Security numbers for parents and students
  • Your driver’s license number
  • Your alien registration number if you aren’t a U.S. citizen
  • Tax returns and W-2s
  • Information for income such as child support, interest income and more
  • Statements for cash, savings and checking accounts, investment accounts and more

Step 1: Get your FSA ID.

An FSA ID is a username and password that’s unique and confirms your identity when you’re looking at or signing official financial aid documents. Let’s say you’re filling out the FAFSA for your dependent student. You’ll need two separate FSA IDs — one for you and one for your child. Remember that you’ll need to remember your FSA ID every year that you file the FAFSA — lock it in your memory bank.

Just kidding. You might never remember it ever again. Write it down and save it somewhere safe.

Step 2: Go to the FAFSA login page.

Find “Start here” on FAFSA.gov and enter your student’s name, Social Security number and date of birth. Be absolutely sure your name and Social Security numbers match what’s on your Social Security card — lots of financial aid personnel at colleges encounter a problem when these don’t match.

Step 3: List colleges and universities.

You can list up to 10 colleges and universities where you want the FAFSA sent — but you must choose at least one. Use the Federal School Code search to identify each of the schools on your list.

Step 4: Know your dependency status.

Some students might consider themselves an independent student — but the reality is that it’s really tough to declare yourself an independent student, even if you don’t live with your parents. Here’s the checklist that can lead you through the process so you know for sure.

Step 5: Add parent information.

You’re going to have to add legal parent(s) on the FAFSA if you’re a dependent student or add your own name if you’re filing for a dependent.

  • You must almost always list a stepparent who is married to your legal parent. 
  • Let’s say that your parents are divorced — you’ll include information for the parent you live with most of the time. 
  • You’ll need to list both parents if they live together, regardless of whether they’re the same or opposite sex.
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Step 6: Offer up financial information.

You’ll need to gather up tax information from 2018 for the 2020-2021 FAFSA. 

The data retrieval tool (IRS DRT) takes most of the work out of filing the FAFSA. It pulls information from the IRS and prepopulates it onto your FAFSA. Here’s a quick overview of how it works:

  • Go to the IRS website through the DRT and fill out your name exactly as it is on your taxes. 
  • You’ll be able to find a page that tells you that your tax information is ready to go and you’ll be able to use that page to import your information directly onto the FAFSA form. 
  • You’ll be able to see “Transferred from the IRS” in the correct fields on your FAFSA but won’t be able to see exactly what’s in these fields. In other words, you won’t be able to change this information.
  • You can opt to fill in all parts of the FAFSA manually instead of using the IRS DRT.

Step 7: Sign and submit your FAFSA.

Sign with your FSA ID and that ensures that your form is processed quickly. You do have the option to print, sign and mail in a signature page to submit your FAFSA, though that won’t be processed as quickly as it would if you used the FSA ID.

How does the FAFSA work?

Next, the magic happens in each college’s financial aid office. The colleges you’re interested in attending will use your FAFSA results to determine your eligibility for financial aid. The financial aid office at every school uses a couple of pieces of information, including: 

  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC): Your EFC is a formulated number (the formula is established by the federal government) which helps colleges and universities determine how much you could feasibly pay for college. (Note: Don’t be alarmed if your EFC seems high. Many families feel that way.)
  • Year in school
  • Enrollment status: The schools will need to know whether you’re going to be a full-time or half-time student.
  • Cost of attendance (COA): The COA is the amount you’ll pay to attend each school. It may include — but is not limited to — tuition, room, board and fees, books, supplies, transportation costs, loan fees and more. 

The schools you’re considering might have other forms you’ll need to fill out to get financial aid specifically from each school, so check each financial aid office for more information.

Each school will also have a different timeline to release aid. Some colleges can get your financial aid award to you within two weeks — but this varies from school to school. Just ask.

What does the FAFSA get you?

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to file the FAFSA — but know that you could miss out on certain need-based aid if you don’t. The aid you could get comes in four major flavors: Scholarships, grants, loans and work study. Here’s the scoop.

Federal aid

Federal aid is given through the U.S. Department of Education primarily through grants, work study funds and low-interest loans. 

  • Grants don’t have to be repaid, unless you withdraw from school and owe money to the program that provides you the grant.
  • Work study is a program through your school that allows you to work at your school and earn money. 
  • Federal student loans are borrowed money that must be repaid. Federal student loans are the best loans you can get because they typically offer the lowest interest rates on the market.

There are other federal aid opportunities, too. You might qualify for aid as the spouse or dependent of a veteran, as a foster care youth and more.

State aid

You might not qualify for federal grants — so check with the department of education, the higher education agency or adult education agency in your state to see what types of grants may be available to you. Note: The colleges and universities you’ve applied to will also be able to tell you whether you qualify for state grants or other state aid.

College or university aid

The colleges and universities you’ve applied to will evaluate your FAFSA and award you directly from their own funds, too. Scholarships can offer you a major boost. Scholarships are like grants — you don’t have to pay back the money you’re awarded.

You’ll see the need-based scholarships you’ve received after you get your financial aid award. But if you want to be proactive, ask your admission counselor at each college for more information about all scholarships available.

When is the FAFSA due?

The federal FAFSA deadline is June 30, but the schools you’re applying to might require you to submit it before then. Don’t miss schools’ deadlines — check with each individual school so you don’t miss out on getting as much financial aid as possible.

As of October 1, 2019, you could file the FAFSA for the 2020-2021 academic year.

File the FAFSA now

You’ll be able to check your FAFSA form’s status immediately after you submit the online form. A paper FAFSA form takes a bit longer. You can learn more about 7–10 days you mail it in — either log in to fafsa.gov or contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center.

Again — remember that you should never pay money to complete the FAFSA. You know you’ve encountered a scam website if a site asks you for your credit card information. Close out of the website immediately and go to fafsa.ed.gov.

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