Filling out your FAFSA is an essential step in the college application process. If you are an aspiring college student, or you are the parent of an aspiring college student, chances are pretty good that this isn’t the first time you’re hearing about the FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is your ticket to financial support for a higher education, which may come in the form of loans or grants. But there’s more to it than that. The FAFSA is actually used to unlock a whole host of opportunities for students from a wide diversity of backgrounds.
But what is the FAFSA exactly, how does it work, and why is it so important?
Well, we’ll start by answering the last question first. The FAFSA is important because it plays a direct role in financing a higher education for a vast majority of American college and graduate students. The cost of college is high and rising. Even over the last two pandemic-disrupted years, which have actually seen a slowdown in college application rates, the price of tuition continues its upward march. During the 2021-2022 school year, tuition for public, in-state universities exceeded $10,000. The cost was more than $22,000 per year for public out-of-state students. For students attending private, non-profit universities, the average cost for one year of tuition topped $38,000.
And of course, this is just the average price. Any student attending an elite university should expect a tuition bill in the range of $50-60K every year. That, of course, does not account for the full range of peripheral expenses from housing and campus fees to books and that sweet branded merchandise proudly sporting your school’s logo.
So how will you be paying for this incredibly expensive investment? Well, your very first step is to apply for financial aid. This means you must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. But before you do, there are actually quite a few things you should know. The better you understand the financial aid system and how it works, the better you can prepare for your likely financial determination and any future opportunities or obligations that might come with this determination.
Before you proceed to our tips, we also recommend getting a fuller understanding of the college admissions landscape. After all, you will most likely be required to eventually repay the loans you receive through your FAFSA. Be sure that you’re getting a good deal for the money, regardless of what the rankings say.
If you already know how to shop for schools, and you’re ready to focus on paying for the experience, read on for 10 things you should know about the FAFSA and federal financial aid in general.
1. Everybody Should Fill out a FAFSA
If you are an American citizen and you’re planning to attend an American university, you should fill out a FAFSA before every single year you plan to attend. The FAFSA will be used to determine your eligibility for student loans or need-based grants, and further, to determine which types of loans or grants you might be eligible to receive. The FAFSA will collect information about your family’s financial standing and use this to determine your eligibility for either unsubsidized loans, subsidized loans or need-based grants. The higher your family’s earnings, the lower your likely financial determination.
But—and this is important—everybody should fill out the FAFSA regardless of your family’s financial standing. Do not make the mistake of skipping the FAFSA because you assume that you won’t be eligible for loans or grants. For one thing, even students without financial need are typically eligible for unsubsidized loans—which are loans that begin accruing interest as soon as you begin college. (This contrasts subsidized loans, where interest only begins accruing once repayment begins). Moreover, colleges and universities may use your FAFSA to make an array of determinations about your eligibility for school-specific grants and scholarships. Don’t deprive yourself of hidden opportunities by failing to fill out your form. Whether you believe you are eligible or not, you should complete your FAFSA.
2. Make Your List of Schools First
While the FAFSA is your first stop on the way to getting financial assistance, it should actually be preceded by your college selection process. This is because your FAFSA information will be sent directly to the colleges on your list. As we mentioned above, not only will the FAFSA determine your eligibility for grants and loans at the federal level, but individual schools will also use this information to identify school-based scholarships and grants that you might qualify for.
In fact, you are required to identify at least one college or university to receive your FAFSA information. If you are using the online FAFSA form—which we strongly recommend—you can identify up to 10 schools to receive your information. If you submit using a print method, you can submit to four schools initially, but will be allowed to add additional schools at a later juncture in the process.
Whichever submission method you use, the point is that you should have that list of schools ready to go by the time you get to the financial aid stage in your application process. As you fill out your form, you can use the Federal School Code Search to find the schools on your list.
3. Financial Aid Is Only Available for Accredited Colleges and Universities
If you don’t see your college or university in the Federal School Code Search, this may be a red flag that your school is not accredited by an agency with recognition from the U.S. Department of Education. Accreditation is kind of a big deal. Remember in the first section when we said that everybody should apply for federal financial aid? Well, there is one exception. If you attend a school without proper accreditation, you will not be eligible to receive financial aid.
Only students attending schools which are regionally or nationally accredited by U.S. Department of Education-recognized accreditors will be eligible for federal financial aid. This applies to both federal student loans and federal need-based grant programs. So as you’re making that all-important list of colleges and universities, do your due diligence. Make sure your school is regionally or nationally accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accreditor.
4. There Are a Few Other Important Eligibility Requirements
Before you dive into the application, make sure that you meet the basic conditions for eligibility. The U.S. Department of Education’s Student Aid Office outlines the following eligibility requirements for receiving federal financial aid:
- U.S. Citizenship
- Valid Social Security #
- Registration with Selective Service (for male applicants)
- enrollment or acceptance as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program
- Evidence of satisfactory academic progress
- Proof that applicant is is not in default on a federal student loan, and that the pending loan will be used for the purposes of education only, via certified statement
- High-school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate
There are additional factors that may impact eligibility, or special considerations that may be required, for students with criminal convictions, students with intellectual disabilities, and non-U.S. citizens seeking entry into U.S. universities under a wide range of circumstances. There may be exceptions made for certain eligible non-U.S. citizens. Undocumented immigrant students are generally not eligible for federal financial aid.
If you don’t meet these conditions for eligibility, consider reaching out directly to the schools on your list. Many colleges and universities may offer their own need- and merit-based financial aid and scholarship programs. Some of these opportunities may be reserved for students who are otherwise ineligible to receive federal financial aid.
5. You’ll Need to Have a Bunch of Documents Handy
Now that you have your list of fully accredited colleges and universities, it’s time to gather your materials. It takes a lot of information to create a financial determination. You must be prepared to both prove your current dependency status and provide a fairly comprehensive look at your family’s finances.
You’ll answer a series of questions to determine whether you are of independent status, or are a dependent under your parents. If you qualify as the latter, you’ll need to provide both your financial information and that of your parents. This will include information about your recent tax history, earnings, and assets. Depending on your filing status, you may also need to provide the same information about your parents or spouse.
Do yourself a huge favor and locate all of that information before you get started. The more you have at your fingertips, the less you’ll find yourself scrambling for documents and information in the middle of the process.
If you prepare everything in advance, completing your FAFSA should just be a matter of filling in the blanks. The FAFSA website offers a friendly checklist identifying everything you’ll need to locate, including:
- Social Security #
- Parents’ Social Security #s (if you are a dependent)
- Driver’s License # (if applicable)
- Alien Registration # (for non-U.S. citizens)
- Federal Tax information/tax returns for you (and parents if dependent; or spouse if married)
- Records of untaxed income including child support, interest, etc.
- Information on assets including account balances, investments, and non-residential real estate
In some cases, you will be required to provide proof using actual documents. If you are submitting your application online, this is simply a matter of scanning and uploading form attachments. However, if you plan to print and submit by snail mail, always make duplicates of your documents for submission.
You may be asked to send proof of your Social Security Card, Driver’s License, home deed, etc. Make copies. Never send originals!
It may take some legwork to gather (and scan or copy) everything you’ll need to get started. But it will be well worth your while. Not only will it make it much easier to fill out your FAFSA for the first time, but the online FAFSA form will retain much of this information and documentation for the coming years. When you go back to fill out your FAFSA form next year, you can log in using your FSA ID and select the FAFSA Renewal option. Some of your information will already be filled in for you.
Of course, in order for this information to be available to you next year, you have to actually use the online submission form—as opposed to submitting a physical copy by mail. If at all possible, we very strongly advise using the online submission form for your FAFSA.
6. Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool
This is a small but consequential step that we strongly recommend taking. The FAFSA’s IRS Data Retrieval Tool allows you to give the FAFSA access to your tax information. By automatically populating your form with this information, the tool reduces the chances of error and takes some of the hassle out of the application process.
This tool is also another strong point of endorsement for the FAFSA website or mobile application. The site is linked to an array of tools, including the IRS Data Retrieval Tool and Federal School Code Search, that will make your life a lot easier.
7. The FAFSA Website Is Your Friend
If we haven’t already made this clear, they want you to use the website. It just makes things easier for everybody.
Technically, there are four ways to fill out your FAFSA:
- Apply online at fafsa.gov
- Apply using the myStudentAid mobile app
- Complete, print and mail a FAFSA PDF
- Or, to receive a print form in the mail, call at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 334-523-2691 (TTY for the deaf or hard of hearing 1-800-730-8913); then complete and mail form.
Every one of these is an accepted method of submission. However, submitting online, or through the mobile app, offers countless benefits beyond mere convenience.
For one thing, online or mobile applications reduce the chances for error. Form fields and instructions are designed to lead you through a fairly seamless submission process. This begins when you sign on to the Student Aid website and create your FSA ID. You can do this even if you aren’t quite ready to begin filling out your form. Setting up your ID in advance should give you time to manage any unforeseen challenges accessing your application, and it can give you a clear idea of the materials and information you’ll need to gather in order to complete your FAFSA.
You’ll notice that the FAFSA website is fairly rich with information, helpful tips, and support lines. This is another benefit. If you aren’t sure what to do at any point in the process, you’re likely to find an answer—or somebody who can provide an answer—through this portal.
And perhaps most importantly, online submissions are generally processed much faster than print and mail options. When you sign and submit your FAFSA using your FSA ID, you will immediately be taken to a confirmation page. You should also receive an emailed confirmation outlining the next steps.
8. Know Your Deadlines
Whether you submit online or by print, get your timeline straight in advance. The FAFSA for each upcoming school year becomes available for completion on October 1st. Do your best to get started on the application process as early as possible. Though FAFSA has annual deadlines, many colleges and states have their own deadlines for awarding financial aid each year. The sooner you get your FAFSA done, the better your chances are of receiving aid offers from all of the colleges on your list.
Once you get started with your application process, you may want to mark down these important deadlines in your calendar:
- Federal Deadlines for the 2022–23 Academic Year
Online FAFSA Form submission: by 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT), June 30, 2023. FAFSA corrections or updates: by 11:59 p.m. (CT), September 10, 2023.
- Federal Deadlines for the 2021-22 Academic Year
Online FAFSA Form submission: by 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT), June 30, 2022.
FAFSA corrections or updates: by 11:59 p.m. (CT), September 10, 2022.
- College-Specific Deadlines
Every college has its own deadline for FAFSA submissions. Be sure you have all the deadlines for your prospective schools marked in your calendar. Any earlier deadlines from your prospective colleges will supersede a later federal FAFSA deadline!
- State-Specific Deadlines
Every state has its own submission deadlines as well. You must adhere to these deadlines in order to be eligible for financial aid from the states in which your prospective schools are located. Visit the Student Aid website to find out the 2022-23 deadlines for states relevant to your college search.
9. Avoid These Common FAFSA Mistakes
Errors can slow the processing of your FAFSA form and, in the worst case scenario, may even stand in the way of loans or grants to which you are actually entitled. Make sure that you take each step of submission slowly, follow all instructions, and review thoroughly before you click to submit. There are a few easy steps you can take to prevent submission errors:
- Make sure you fill out every field. Blank fields can result in machine error. Use the standard “N/A” to complete any required fields for which information is not applicable or available.
- Double-check your personal data. A tiny mistake on an important identifying number like your driver’s license ID# or your Social Security # can trigger a cascade of annoying bureaucratic issues.
- Use your full legal name. Using abbreviations or nicknames can result in processing errors.
- Use FAFSA-friendly tools. As noted earlier, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool and Federal School Code Search are available through the FAFSA website specifically to help reduce the likelihood of user error.
- Remember to register with Selective Service. All American men must register with Selective Service upon turning 18, so this condition should be pretty easy to meet. But if you haven’t yet registered, now’s the time. All male applicants between the ages of 18 and 26 must be registered with Selective Service in order to be eligible for federal financial aid. Get this done before you set out to complete your FAFSA.
- Use the Correct Marital/Residential/Parental Status. The accuracy of this information is essential to determining your financial aid eligibility and, in many cases, can improve your financial aid determination. For instance, if you are a parent and you are applying for financial aid, claiming a dependent could increase the size of your aid package. Also noteworthy, if your family is expecting a child by the time you’ll be attending school, be sure that you include this information, as it will factor into the size and type of your aid determination.
And of course, once you’re done, triple-check every detail. Get everything right the first time and avoid delays in the processing of your financial aid. If you do run into a few mistakes, that’s ok too. See the section above and mark the September deadline for submitting corrections on your calendar.
10. Enlist Help—That’s What It’s There For
Another great way to avoid making mistakes is to reach out for help when you need it. Don’t feel like you have to muddle through this process alone. If you have access to a college admissions consultant or a high school guidance counselor, don’t be afraid to schedule time for some direct support.
And if you’re confused or have any questions as you navigate the website, be sure to use the support resources provided directly by the Student Financial Aid office. You can reach out to support agents at the Office of Student Aid. Visit the Help Page or call 1-800-4‐FED AID (1-800-433-3243) to speak with an actual human being.
11. Understand the Math Behind Your Financial Determination
So you’ve successfully completed your FAFSA, pored over the information with a magnifying glass, and you’ve clicked the submit button. Now what happens?
You can find the answer to that question in your Student Aid Report (SAR). You will typically receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) within three weeks of completing your FAFSA. While this report won’t yet tell you what type of financial aid package you’ll be receiving, it will indicate whether or not you have qualified for a need-based grant.
This eligibility is based on a figure called Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is determined using the sum of a percentage of your family’s net income and a percentage of your family’s net assets. Your Student Aid Report will include your EFC.
This is your opportunity to review and correct any information on your FAFSA that might be inaccurate. Once you’ve completed your review and confirmed your information, all that’s left to do is get accepted to college. No big deal, right?
Only after you’ve been accepted to a college or university listed on your FAFSA submission list will you be given a chance to review an actual aid offer. This offer will come in the form of a letter directly from your school indicating both the type and amount of loan for which you are eligible.
12. Remember That You Will Have to Repay Your Loans
Student loan forgiveness is much talked about these days. It has been for years. But it has yet to materialize, and you should work on the assumption that it won’t ever materialize. Politicians love to make political capital about of promising student loan forgiveness, but with total student indebtedness in the US now at $1.75 trillion, don’t hold your breath—it’s going to be very hard for the government to find that sort of money, even with the best intentions for easing student debt.
So, if you take out student loans, you need to be prepared at some point to repay your student loans. Any student receiving a loan will be on the hook for repayment. There are numerous different repayment options depending on the structure of your student loans and whether these are subsidized or unsubsidized loans.
As noted earlier, with subsidized loans, you will not be charged interest until you finish school and begin repayment. With unsubsidized loans, you begin accruing interest charges right away. This means you are accumulating interest while still in college. The type of loan you have received will depend on your level of financial need. But unless you’ve received a need-based grant such as a Pell Grant, chances are pretty good that you’ll begin making monthly loan payments almost as soon as you graduate. Make sure you understand what you’ll owe and plan accordingly.
Of course, federal financial aid is only part of the picture when it comes to paying for college. As an aspiring college student, you may be able to take advantage of countless scholarships, grant programs, employee tuition assistance programs and much more. Make sure you leave no stone unturned when it comes to this incredibly important and incredibly expensive investment. To learn more, check out these Ten Ways to Pay For College.