What is the FAFSA
The FAFSA is a free online application for financial aid eligibility for college. It’s used by schools to put together your federal student aid package. This package can include grants, work-study, federal student loans, and even state and school financial aid.
Where and how to apply for federal student aid—the beginner’s guide
Once you’re ready to begin the FAFSA, keep these tips in mind:
- Begin your FAFSA process by creating a FSA ID at FAFSA.gov. It’s your personal code for submitting the FAFSA when you’re ready. Your FSA ID will give you access to FSA online systems and can serve as your legal signature.
- Submit your FAFSA as soon as possible. Federal student aid applications can be submitted starting October 1 at FAFSA.gov. Federal financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so know your deadlines and apply as early as you can to maximize your financial aid.
- Think local. College and state financial aid deadlines vary by state, and can be as early as February or March of your senior year of high school. Check your state’s financial aid deadlines.
- Apply for the FAFSA annually. You need to fill out the FAFSA each year that you are—or plan to be—a student. The FAFSA is used by schools to put together your financial aid package for one year of college.
The Beginner’s Guide to FAFSA
How to file the FAFSA to get federal student aid
To file your FAFSA, you’ll first need to gather the documents you’ll need to reference. Then complete your application at FAFSA.gov.
Step 1: Gather all the information you’ll need
- Your driver's license and Social Security number
- Your parents' Social Security numbers and birthdates
- Your family’s latest federal income tax returns.
For example, if you're applying for financial aid for academic year 2017-18, you'll likely use your family's 2015 tax return.
- W-2 forms
- Bank statements
- Information on your family's investments (real estate, money market funds, stocks, etc.)
Step 2: Bookmark FAFSA.gov
- This is where you get your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID and submit the FAFSA.
- Don't fall for scams. The only site you should use to fill out and file the FAFSA is FAFSA.gov.
- There's no charge for submitting the FAFSA.
- The site also has the most up-to-date information on upcoming changes.
Step 3: Submit your FAFSA
- The easiest and fastest way is to file the FAFSA online with your FSA ID, made up of your username and password. Your application will be processed within 3 – 5 days.
- You can mail in a paper application, but the processing time will take about 7 – 10 days.
How is your FAFSA used to calculate your federal student aid eligibility
When you fill out your FAFSA, you’ll provide personal demographic information, as well as financial information, such as your family’s federal income tax returns, W-2 forms, bank statements, and information on your family’s investments.
This financial information is used to determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is an index number that colleges use to determine how much federal financial aid you’re eligible to receive. Your EFC is calculated according to a formula established by law and the information from your FAFSA.
The government considers your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), your year in school, your enrollment status, and the cost of attendance (COA) at the school you’ll be attending to determine your financial aid package amount. The COA is typically tuition, books, supplies, transportation, room, and board.
What happens after your FAFSA submission
After you submit your FAFSA, you’ll get your Student Aid Report (SAR) from the office of Federal Student Aid. Your SAR is a paper or electronic document that gives you basic information about the FAFSA data you submitted, including your answers to the questions on your FAFSA. Your SAR won’t tell you how much financial aid you’ll get. If you provided an email address when you submitted your FAFSA, you can expect to receive your SAR within a few days of electronically filing or within two weeks of mailing.
After you receive your SAR, you’ll get financial aid award letters from the schools you have been accepted at. Award letters tell you how much aid you’re eligible for at that school.
If you made a mistake on your submitted FAFSA, you can make corrections by logging in to your account on FAFSA.gov. Once you’re logged in, enter your FSA ID to change your information and submit new information.
You can also update your mailing address, email address, and other contact information in your account if it has changed.
Debunking financial aid myths
Myth: My family's income is too high to qualify for federal financial aid.
Fact: Student and family income isn’t the only factor that the government uses to decide if a student qualifies for federal financial aid. The only way to know for sure if you’ll qualify is to fill out the FAFSA.
Myth: My family has money saved for college so we won't get any federal financial aid.
Fact: Savings might not be a major factor when a school decides if a student qualifies for Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans. There are allowances for savings and assets.
Myth: My sibling wasn't eligible for much federal financial aid last year, so I won't be eligible when I enter college.
Fact: Actually, the number of family members in college might have a favorable impact on your financial aid eligibility.
Myth: I’m only attending college part-time, so I won't be eligible for federal financial aid.
Fact: Financial aid is available for part-time students. Talk to the financial aid offices of the colleges you’re interested in attending about aid for part-time students.