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Why, When, and How: The FAFSA Survival Guide

College • August 27, 2020 • Jonathan Looney


What you’ll learn

  • Why the FAFSA is important
  • When you should fill out the FAFSA
  • How to complete the FAFSA


Whether I’m at an industry conference, a family gathering, or a local restaurant with friends, I am usually faced with the same question when someone learns I work at Sallie Mae, “How can I/my child get more money for college?”

My answer has always been, “Have you filled out the FAFSA yet?” The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the “FAFSA,” is one of the most important pieces of the college planning process. To provide more clarity about the benefits of completing it, I’ve answered some of the most common questions below.

Why should someone fill out the FAFSA?

Each year, the government sets aside around $150 billion in federal aid for college students. That aid consists of grants, scholarships, federal student loans, and work-study, and to qualify for that aid, students need to fill out the FAFSA form.

Sallie Mae’s “How America Pays for College 2020” research report shows that just 71% of families filled out the FAFSA for academic year 2019-20. That’s down from 83% just two years ago! What’s the biggest reason for not filing? Four in ten families think they won’t qualify for aid. That couldn’t be further from the truth: nearly all families qualify for something! This means that nearly a third of families could be missing out on thousands of dollars in financial aid.

It’s not just federal aid we’re talking about. Schools use the FAFSA to put together their financial aid packages and some states use it to determine eligibility for state aid. For Tennessee students, the FAFSA form is used to determine students’ eligibility for the Tennessee Promise program, which provides two years of tuition-free attendance at a community or technical college in Tennessee, and the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship, which is established and funded from the net proceeds of the state lottery and awarded to entering freshmen who are enrolled at an eligible postsecondary institution.

Another common question is whether the FAFSA is just based on parent income. I’ve got news for you, it’s not. Yes, tax returns are used to file, so income is important. But there are other variables, like how many dependents you have, and how many of those dependents are in college. Regardless of your income, if you or your child is enrolled in a higher education institution, filling out the FAFSA should be a priority every year.

When should I complete the FAFSA?

Oct. 1 should be considered a holiday in higher education; it marks the opening of the FAFSA window for the next academic year. To be considered for federal student aid for the 2021-2022 academic year, make sure to fill out your FAFSA on, or close to, Oct. 1, 2020. Completing the FAFSA sooner rather than later is especially important because some aid is awarded on a first come, first served basis.

States and colleges have their own deadlines for applying for state and institutional financial aid. Visit your school’s website to find out their deadlines and visit the Federal Student Aid website to view specific state FAFSA deadlines, too, especially if you’re applying to colleges in different states. If you’re a returning FAFSA filer, you may remember your school and state deadlines, but make sure to double-check the different websites in case any timelines have changed.

Another myth about the FAFSA is that you only have to fill out the form once as a senior in high school to be eligible for aid in college. You must complete the FAFSA as a high school senior, and every year in college, even graduate school. Filing a new FAFSA each year is the only way to remain eligible for federal student aid, and the amount of aid can vary year-over-year.

How do you fill out the FAFSA?

Before you start the filing process, you’ll want to make sure you gather you and/or your student’s Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, bank statements, tax returns, and W-2 forms. By having this information beforehand, you’ll be able to expedite the process. And the good news is, once you return to file the FAFSA form next year, most of this information will be saved.

Take your time filling out the application and make sure the information you’re entering is correct, too. Some of the most common errors leaving parts of the application blank, inputting the wrong Social Security or driver’s license numbers, and completely forgetting to sign the application. It’s crucial you pay extreme attention to detail; your potential financial aid could be put into jeopardy.

The good news is, there are free tools and resources to help. Sallie Mae, for example, recently partnered with Embark, a provider of online application and admissions software, to create a free, quick, and easy way to fill out the FAFSA. Using the Embark tool can cut down the time to file, and it’ll ensure the application is submitted properly. To get your FAFSA started, you can view their tool here. The FAFSA is also available online through the Federal Student Aid website or through the myStudentAid app.

If you run into any roadblocks filling out the FAFSA form, don’t hesitant to seek help. The online FAFSA form contains a “More Help” link for information, be sure you locate it. You can also visit the “FAFSA Help” page of the Federal Student Aid website.

And last, but certainly not least, remember to be cautious of sites phishing for your FAFSA information, and never pay to fill out the FAFSA. The first “F” in FAFSA stands for “Free!”


Jonathan is a Sallie Mae employee and a graduate of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. When he’s not helping families plan for college, you can find him on the tennis court, or attending a concert at his local music venue.


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