FAFSA®: Your first step to getting financial aid

Completing and submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is the single most important thing you can do to get financial aid for college or graduate school.

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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 for one year of college. This package can include grants for college, work-study, federal student loans, and even state and school financial aid.

While financial aid is not the same as student loans, you must first complete the FAFSA® form to apply for a federal student loan. Completing the FAFSA® online is convenient—and it can make your financial aid search easier.

Grad students can also apply for aid with the FAFSA. Learn more about graduate financial aid.

Watch HACKED to follow Player One on their mission to pay for college, and get plenty of tips, tricks, and tools to help you file your FAFSA®.

How to apply for the FAFSA®

Once you’re ready to begin the FAFSA®, keep these tips in mind:

  • Submit your FAFSA as soon as possible. Federal student aid applications can be submitted starting October 1 for the following school year (for example, starting October 1, 2022 for the 2023-2024 school year). 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 application deadlines vary by state. 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.

Complete the FAFSA® like a pro

Check out Nitro’s 2022-23 step-by-step FAFSA® guide to help you understand each FAFSA® question and provide accurate answers.

(By clicking this link, you’ll go to our trusted affiliate, SLM NitroCollege LLC. Any use of the site will be governed by SLM NitroCollege LLC’s terms of use and any information you provide will be governed by the terms of SLM NitroCollege LLC’s privacy policy.)  

Frequently asked questions about the FAFSA® application

To file your FAFSA, first gather all of the documents you’ll need to reference:

  • Your driver's license and Social Security number 
  • You may need your parents’ email addresses so that they can supply their Social Security numbers and birthdates. 
  • Permission from the family member who completed a tax return if you’d like to import information directly from the IRS. If you prefer not to import it, then you’ll need to provide other financial information
  • Federal income tax return: if you’re applying for academic year 2022-2023, you’ll likely use your family’s 2020 tax return
  • W-2 forms
  • Bank statements
  • Information about your family’s investments (real estate, money market funds, stocks, etc.footnote 1)

When you apply for financial aid, 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®.

Your eligibility for aid depends on 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. The COA is the estimated cost to attend for one academic year and, if you attend at least half time, can include tuition, books, supplies, transportation, room and board, and other education-related expenses.

October 1, 2022
Open date: The earliest you can file the FAFSA® for the 2023-2024 academic year.

June 30, 2023
The federal deadline for filing the 2022-2023 FAFSA®. States and colleges have their own FAFSA deadlines. Be sure to check the FAFSA® deadline for each college you’re applying to. You can check your state's deadline on the federal student aid website.

While it may seem like you're getting money from the FAFSA®, it's actually just a form and process to get federal student aid, not a student loan. If you receive federal student loans as part of your financial aid award, you would have to repay them.

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 2022 report shows that 70% of families filled out the FAFSA® for academic year 2021-22. What’s the biggest reason for not filing? Among families who didn’t submit it, 36% think their income is too high to qualify for any 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, for example, the FAFSA® is used to determine their eligibility for the Tennessee Promise program, which provides two years of tuition-free attendance at a Tennessee community or technical college. There’s also the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship, which is funded from the net proceeds of the state lottery and awarded to entering freshmen who are enrolled at an eligible post-secondary institution.

It’s not. Yes, tax returns are used in the application, 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 student is enrolled in a higher education institution, filling out the FAFSA® when it opens should be a priority every year

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 2022-2023 academic year, make sure to fill out your FAFSA® on, or close to, Oct. 1, 2022. It’s especially important to complete the FAFSA® sooner rather than later 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—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 in case any timelines have changed.

Another FAFSA® myth is that you only have to fill it out once to be eligible for financial aid in college. Yes, you need to complete it as a high school senior, but you also have to file it again every year of college and even graduate school. Submitting a “Renewal FAFSA®” each year is the only way to remain eligible for federal student aid, and the amount of aid can vary year-over-year

Before you start the filing process, you’ll want to make sure you gather your and/or your student’s Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, bank statements, 2020 tax returns for the 2022- 2023 academic year, and W-2 forms. By having this information ready, you’ll be able to expedite the process. And the good news is, once you return to file the FAFSA® next year, most of this information will be saved.

Take your time filling out the FAFSA® and make sure the information you're entering is correct, too. Some of the most common FAFSA® mistakes include leaving parts of the application blank, entering the wrong Social Security or driver's license numbers, and completely forgetting to sign the application. It's crucial to pay attention to detail; you could jeopardize your potential financial aid if you make mistakes.

The good news is, there are free tools and resources to help, like this FAFSA® handbook. If you run into any roadblocks filling out the FAFSA®, don't hesitate to ask for help. You can also visit “FAFSA Help” on the Federal Student Aid website.

And last, but certainly not least, you should never pay to file the FAFSA®; it’s free on the federal student aid site and through the myStudentAid app. Be careful about sites phishing for your FAFSA® information. The first “F” in FAFSA® stands for “Free!”

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®.footnote 2

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.footnote 3

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.footnote 4

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.footnote 5

footnote 1. This information was gathered on 9/22/22 from https://studentaid.gov/help/info-needed.

footnote 2. This information was gathered on 9/22/22 from https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/eligibility.

footnote 3. This information was gathered on 9/23/20 from https://studentaid.gov/complete-aid-process/how-calculated.

footnote 4. This information was gathered on 9/22/22 from https://finaid.org/educators/householdsize.

footnote 5. This information was gathered on 9/23/20 from https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/eligibility/requirements.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

footnote FAFSA is a registered service mark of U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid.

footnote External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks, and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.