The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is an official form that anyone seeking government aid for college will have to fill out. High school seniors seeking financial aid for college must in the last semester of school fill out a FAFSA to determine eligibility for aid, and all applicants (current undergraduates, graduate students, adults returning to school) can find application deadlines here. To receive student financial aid, you will need to fill out the FAFSA every school year. There is a paper version of the form available, or an online version. If you decide to complete the application online, make sure you do so using the official government Web site because some .com sites will charge you to submit the application. The six-page, 109-question form can seem daunting (and thankfully the online version has been simplified!) but it's really a breeze once you have all the necessary materials together. Before you begin, here is a worksheet detailing the information you will need.
A good place to start the application process is with the FAFSA4caster, where you can get an early estimate of your eligibility for federal student financial aid - as early as sophomore or junior year of high school! Parents of younger students can also use the tool to receive early estimates, create scenarios based on future earnings, and then establish college savings strategies. Non-traditional college students (i.e. adult learners) can also use FAFSA4caster. Conveniently, the application can transfer all of the data to the FAFSA on the Web application when it is time to officially apply, making the experience of applying for federal student aid a lot easier.
Before you can complete the FAFSA, there are some preliminary steps, including determining your dependency status (this can help you figure out if you need to provide parental information on the FAFSA). You'll also need to determine your eligibility status.
Applying for a PIN
If you plan to submit the FAFSA online, you will need to sign the application electronically, which you can do by applying for a PIN. A PIN is 4-digit number that is used in combination with your Social Security Number, name, and date of birth to identify you as someone who has the right to access your own personal information on Federal Student Aid Web sites. A PIN also allows you to access your records in the future and can be used each year to electronically apply for federal student aid. If you do apply for a PIN, you can instantly select or view your personal PIN online, or opt to receive an e-mail with the PIN immediately. You do not have to apply for a PIN to fill out and submit a FAFSA, but if you opt not to, you will have to print, sign and mail the signature page. The application process is typically faster if you use your PIN to sign your application electronically.
Filling Out the Form
When you are filling out the FAFSA online, you can take a break from it and come back to it at any time. For security reasons, the site will automatically log you out if you are idle for a long time, but you can easily log back in with your PIN and personal information. FAFSAs are saved for 45 days or until the federal application/correction deadline date, after which your application will be deleted, whether or not it has been completed or submitted.Visit the help page on the FAFSA site for any problems or questions that arise during the FAFSA application process. For assistance with problems or difficulties while using FAFSA on the Web, or for specific questions about the FAFSA, you can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 1-319-337-5665. You can also contact customer service live, online, by selecting the Live Help button, or, you can e-mail customer service for assistance at FederalStudentAidCustomerService@ed.gov.
Keep in mind that January 1 is the first date that you are eligible to file the FAFSA. It's a good idea to submit the form as close as possible to this date since school, state and private aid deadlines may be earlier than federal deadlines.
After You've Applied
After you submit the FAFSA, you will be sent a Student Aid Report either in 3 to 5 days via e-mail, or 7 to 10 days via standard mail. The schools that you listed on your FAFSA will also receive your information electronically as soon as it is processed, and a list of school codes may be found here. Your Student Aid Report (SAR) will request additional information or will provide your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, which is a calculation based on the information that is reported on your FAFSA. You can check out an EFC calculator here. The SAR report may request additional information, in which case you will need to complete or correct the requested information by selecting "Make Corrections to a Processed FAFSA" on the FAFSA home page or by writing them on your SAR. These updates can be submitted online or via your SAR by mail.
If your EFC is provided, you do not need to make any changes or submit any additional information. If you are eligible, your school uses the EFC to determine the amount of federal grants, loans or work-study awards that you can receive. Note that your EFC is not the amount of money your family will have to pay for college. It is also not the amount of federal student aid you will receive. It is just a number used by your school to calculate the amount of federal student aid you are eligible to receive.
Tips and FAQs
Considering how all-important the FAFSA is to a student's aid package, it's not surprising that most approach it with trepidation. Read through "Completing the FAFSA" to help the process go more smoothly. You may also want to read "Common Errors on Financial Aid Applications" at FinAid! The official FAFSA site has a useful list of FAQs, and FAFSAOnline has lots of helpful information, including this Line by Line Guide.Find out here what types of student aid are available and read about how to apply for student loans here.