Some schools require you to fill out more than one application for federal financial aid, but they all require at least one—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is used to determine how much federal aid you'll receive in the form of loans, grants, and work-study.
To receive federal financial aid, you have to complete the application every year you're in school, so it's smart to make sure you understand the FAFSA the very first time you fill it out. To help you wrap your head around the process, here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the FAFSA.
What Is The FAFSA?
The FAFSA is a form that you must submit every year you want to be considered for financial aid. Your FAFSA information helps the government calculate how much aid you're eligible to receive for school, and how much they expect you and your family to contribute—also known as your expected family contribution (EFC).
If you're age 24 or older as of December of the award year or meet other criteria, you're considered an independent student. That means you report your own information (as well as your spouse's, if you're married) on the FAFSA, and your award will based on your own earnings, not your parents'.
What Information Do I Need?
To ensure that your FAFSA application process goes smoothly, gather the following information and documents before you start filling out the form:
- Your FSA ID: Your ID allows you to sign your application electronically. If this is your first time filling out the FAFSA, you can create your FSA ID when you log in to the FAFSA website. If you filled out the FAFSA before May 2015, you used an FSA Personal Identification Number (PIN) to access your account instead of an ID. To complete the FAFSA for the current academic year, you will need an FSA ID.
Note: One of your parents will also have to obtain an ID if you are an undergraduate dependent student.
- Financial aid deadlines: Make a list of the financial aid deadlines for each school you've applied to or plan on applying to. You can only include 10 schools at a time on the FAFSA, so list your first choice in the first spot on the form. Then, list the others in order of their financial aid deadlines (from earliest to latest). You should also note the deadlines for your state and the state that the schools you are applying to are in.
- Income documentation: The FAFSA uses income information from 2 years prior to the award year (2016 IRS info for the 2018-2019 award year, for instance). Dependent students will need their parents' federal tax returns (1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ) and W-2 forms if they worked during the applicable year. Most parents should have federal tax returns filed already, so you can select the data retrieval tool option to input those values for your FAFSA application. This is the same for your tax return information as well. If your parents' income comes from another source (like Social Security disability or welfare), you need to know their benefits for the applicable year. If you worked that year, you need to report the income from your W-2 as well—even if you were not required to file taxes.
- Marital information: Dependent students whose parent(s) is married, divorced, separated, or widowed need to report the month and year that status occurred; this includes same-sex parents. If your parent(s) are divorced, separated, or widowed, report only the information about the parent you live with. If you are adopted, your adoptive parents are considered your parents. Likewise, if the biological parent you live with has remarried, your stepparent (including a legally married same-sex stepparent) is considered a parent, so you won't include your biological parent who you don't live with but you will include your stepparent.
Am I Ready To Begin Yet?
Yup! Try to find a quiet place away from distractions and interruptions to get started. Then, go to the official FAFSA website: FAFSA.ed.gov. Don't confuse this with FAFSA.com, which charges you for help.
If this is your first time visiting the site, click on "Start a new FAFSA." From there, the site will guide you step by step through the form.
What If I Make A Mistake Or Can't Finish The Form?
Don't panic! The government knows that mistakes happen when filling out the FAFSA. As long as you know your username and password, it's not difficult to go back and correct a mistake.
Also, if you can't complete the application in one sitting, you can always use your username and password to return to your application later. Just be sure to save the progress you've made before logging out.
When Is My FAFSA Due?
You can file the FAFSA starting October 1 and can apply for federal financial aid almost until the very end of the academic year. However, most schools have specific deadlines for institutional aid, which may be limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Ask each school you apply to about their priority filing deadline—and definitely don't wait until the last minute to meet it!
How Does The FAFSA Calculate My Financial Aid?
Once you submit your FAFSA, a federal processor determines your estimated family contribution (EFC) with a formula based on your family's income, present assets, and size. They send these results—known as your student aid report (SAR)—to the financial aid offices of your chosen schools.
Financial aid officers at these schools determine your "financial need" by subtracting your EFC from the cost of attendance. They look to fill this need (at least partially) by awarding you grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans that you're eligible to receive. Awards vary from school to school, depending on the resources they have to offer.
Where Can I Find More Information?
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) created the FAFSA4caster to give you an idea of what's in store for you from a numbers standpoint. You can also check out this article to find answers to some tricky questions on the FAFSA that you might run into.