College students need to be familiar with all sorts of abbreviations — SAT, ACT and GPA to name a few. However, none may be as important for a student's long-term financial success as the FAFSA. That is, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
While a student's grade point average and standardized test scores may decide which school he or she gets into, it's the FAFSA that can determine how much a person pays for tuition. The form is not only used by the government to dole out grants and loans, but it is typically used for state aid and financial assistance from colleges as well.
Using information submitted on the FAFSA, the government determines how much a family is expected to contribute toward a student's education. This amount is known as the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. Once that's been calculated, a student may be offered a package of aid to help cover the remaining cost.
Federal student aid may include money from a combination of the following federal programs, along with state and institutional awards:
- Federal Pell Grants
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants
- Federal Perkins Loans
- William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program
The best thing about the FAFSA is that it is totally free to complete and submit.
Filling out the FAFSA does not require an application fee, plus it is available to virtually all students, from the recent high school graduate to the 50-something career changer. There is no downside to submitting the FAFSA, and every person going to college should take the time to complete the form.
If the FAFSA sounds or looks overwhelming, keep reading. You'll learn everything you need to know about filing out the form, as well as ways to avoid common mistakes.
Can I Fill Out the FAFSA?
If you are a U.S. citizen and wondering whether you are eligible to fill out the FAFSA, the short answer is "probably yes." The financial aid application is available to citizens and legal residents of the United States with few restrictions.
The longer answer is that U.S. residents must meet the following requirements:
- Have a high school diploma, GED or otherwise qualify for a college or career school education
- Be enrolled or accepted by an eligible degree or certificate program
- Be registered with the Selective Service if you are a male between the ages of 18-25
- Have a valid Social Security number (except residents of Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau)
- Certify you are not in default on any previous federal aid and agree to only use the money for approved education purposes
- Maintain satisfactory progress in your selected program of study
International students are generally not eligible for student aid from the federal government, but there are a few exceptions. Students in the following categories may submit a FAFSA:
- U.S. citizen or U.S. national
- Green Card holder
- T-visa holder or child of a T-visa holder
- Battered immigrants and their children
- Those with an eligible Arrival-Departure Record
Beyond that, it doesn't matter if you are a dependent or independent student, or a graduate or undergraduate student (more on that later). Anyone who meets these criteria can apply for financial aid, regardless of their age.
Don't let your household income stop you from applying either. There are no income limits for filling out the FAFSA. Even if you don't think you'll be eligible for aid, you may be surprised. In the event the federal government doesn't award assistance, your state or college may have different requirements and provide independent aid based on your FAFSA information.
When is the Deadline to Submit the FAFSA?
The earlier you submit your FAFSA, the better. Some financial aid programs have a limited amount of funds. If you wait to submit your FAFSA, those funds may be depleted, and you could miss out on money you would have received had you submitted your application earlier.
To ensure you'll be first in line for available aid, submit your FAFSA as close to October 1 as possible. That's the first date the form is available for those applying for aid to be used the following school year. For federal assistance, you have until June 30 of the following summer to submit your form. However, final deadlines for state programs can vary.
For example, let's say you're planning to go to college during the 2018-2019 school year. Here are the dates for submitting the FAFSA:
- First day to submit online: October 1, 2017
- Last date to submit online: June 30 2019
- Last day to submit corrections: September 14, 2019
While the federal government provides a very long window in which to file your FAFSA, it cannot be overstated how important it is to apply for assistance as early as possible. Some colleges and universities begin making their aid decisions as early as mid-winter before the next school year. If you wait until the school year actually begins, there's a good chance many grants and scholarships will be gone.
It's also crucial to note that the application is good only for one school year. You need to renew your FAFSA each year you want to receive financial assistance.
Finally, the FAFSA deadlines are firm. If you miss applying in time, you're out of luck. So check and double-check the deadlines for your state and your top priority schools.
How Do I Fill Out the FAFSA?
Don't be intimidated by the FAFSA. It isn't the most user-friendly application out there, but it's not the most terrifying government document to tackle either. If you can apply to college, you can apply to the FAFSA as well.
Let's walk through the process of completing it:
- Decide whether to file online or on paper: You have two options with the FAFSA. You can file an online version at fafsa.ed.gov or submit a paper copy. If you are wondering which way is better, the government recommends using the online form.
For the paper copy, you can open a PDF version of the form on your computer, fill it in, print it out and mail it to the government. Or you can call 1-800-4-FED-AID to request a paper copy be sent to you in the mail.
- Create your FSA ID: If you're submitting the FAFSA online, you need an FSA ID to serve as your personal legal signature. If you are a dependent, at least one of your parents will need to create a FSA ID as well.
You create the ID at StudentAid.gov/fsaid. To complete the process, you'll need to submit personal information, including your Social Security number. Note that parents should not create an FSA ID for their children, and children should not create an FSA ID for their parents. Since the ID represents a legally binding signature, each person needs to create and maintain their own FSA ID.
- Enter your financial information: You (and your parents, if you're a dependent) will need to submit financial information. This can be the most time consuming part of the completing the FAFSA.
Before you begin, gather your tax return from the previous year, along with records of any untaxed income as well as any assets — such as savings and investments — you may have. The easiest way to enter your income and tax information online is by using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). The tool allows financial information to be sent directly from the IRS and saves significant time in completing the FAFSA.
Not everyone is eligible to use the IRS DRT and even those who are eligible will still need to enter some details about their assets and untaxed income. However, the time you could save makes it well worth giving a try.
- Designate schools of interest: Before sending your FAFSA off for processing, don't forget to include up to ten schools that you are considering. These schools will get a Student Aid Report based on your FAFSA information. That lets them prepare financial aid packages that include federal, state and institutional aid.
Is the FAFSA Different for Graduate School?
In most ways, filling out the FAFSA is no different for a grad student than it is for an undergrad student. Most of the differences have to do with what financial aid programs may become available to you afterwards. The only major difference during the application process is likely to be whether you file as a dependent or an independent.
Generally speaking, a grad student is any student pursuing a degree higher than a bachelor's degree (with some exceptions, such as students earning a joint undergraduate/ graduate degree, or students who are working towards a second bachelor's degree). Grad students are typically considered "independent" for FAFSA's purposes (with some exceptions). This means you don't have to provide your parents' financial information, as you are likely not depending on them to support you financially anymore.
Other than this, the only real differences for grad students are what kinds of financial aid the FAFSA might qualify them for. There are several FAFSA options for graduate school, including:
- Federal Pell Grants, which are governmental awards that don't have to be repaid. At the graduate level, only students enrolled in a postbaccalaureate teacher certification program are eligible for Pell Grants.
- The William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program offers Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Direct PLUS Loans for those who need to borrow more than the maximum unsubsidized loan amount. Learn more about these loans in our Ultimate Guide for Student Loans.
- The TEACH (Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education) Grant offers grants of up to $4,000 a year for those finishing coursework to begin their teaching careers and the Federal Work-Study (FWS) Program.
10 Common FAFSA Mistakes
You're almost done, but before you submit the form, make sure you aren't committing one of these common FAFSA mistakes.
- Failing to file: Far and away the most common FAFSA mistake is simply failing to file. People think they make too much or they are too old or they aren't enrolled in the right degree program, so they don't even bother submitting the form. However, it's a free form, and you have nothing to lose by completing it.
- Filing too late: Another common mistake is filing too late. As described earlier in this article, some financial aid is available only on a first come, first serve basis, so get your application in as early as possible.
- Only filing once: You need to renew your application every year if you want to be eligible for additional financial assistance.
- Thinking you can't make corrections: If you notice an error after you submit the form, don't worry. You can make changes by logging in to your online FAFSA account. Any field, other than your Social Security Number, can be corrected.
- Leaving sections blank: Rather than risk having it appear you forgot to fill in a section, enter the number zero in any sections that do not apply to you.
- Skipping the IRS DRT: If the IRS DRT is available to you, use it! It will greatly reduce both the risk of errors and the amount of time needed to complete the FAFSA.
- Ignoring state school requirements: Some states pay close attention to how you list schools on the FAFSA. For instance, Pennsylvania only offers grant aid awards to the first school you list. Other states may have other restrictions or requirements for the order in which you list schools. Learn about your state and make sure you comply with its rules! You can find a list of state requirements on the Federal Student Aid website.
- Listing only one or two schools: You are allowed to include up to ten schools on your FAFSA, so list every school that interests you, even ones you would like to attend but are not sure if you can afford. Some schools with expensive sticker prices award very generous financial aid packages.
- Paying someone for help: The FAFSA is 100 percent free to fill out and submit. If you are on a website that's asking you to pay, then you are not on the official website of fafsa.ed.gov. Plus, if you have questions, you can call, email or chat with someone on the site to get answers without paying a dime.
- Failing to sign the form: Your FAFSA can't be processed unless you sign it, so make sure that gets done.
How Much Do I Get?
While you won't know how much financial aid the FAFSA can qualify you for until after you finish applying, you can use the FAFSA website's FAFSA4caster tool to predict how much federal financial aid you may receive. Always remember that this is just an estimate: your total financial aid may be higher or lower than the amount the tool predicts.
What Happens After I File the FAFSA?
It's time to relax. The hard work is done.
Once you submit the FAFSA, the government will crunch the numbers and determine your EFC. Again, this is how much you and your parents (if you're a dependent) are expected to pitch in toward tuition. You'll receive that number in a Student Aid Report (SAR) either via email or postal mail. It should arrive anywhere from 3-10 days after you submit the form.
However, the process isn't done quite yet. The colleges you have listed on the FAFSA are also sent your SAR so they can put together a financial aid package that can include both federal and nonfederal assistance. You should then receive a financial aid award letter from each institution that has accepted you. Review what each school has to offer and follow the instructions to enroll in your chosen college and accept the financial aid.
Congratulations! You have successfully completed the FAFSA process and are ready to begin your degree or training program. Here's to a future bright with possibility!