The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the gateway to earning federal, state, and institutional grants, loans, and work-study funding. Colleges use the FAFSA, along with their own forms, to calculate your total financial aid award.
Completing this online form takes a little time, but we've broken it down and highlighted tricky questions so you know what to expect.
Before You Start
First, you'll need to get some things together—starting with tax forms (yours and your parents', if applicable). This U.S. Department of Education-created worksheet covers all the information you'll need to fill out the form.
You'll also need a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. 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.
Most importantly, know your deadlines. The FAFSA application opens each year on October 1. A lot of aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, and state and institutional aid deadlines may be different from federal aid deadlines.
All set? Head over to FAFSA.ed.gov to get started!
Handling Tricky Questions
A lot of people find the FAFSA confusing—especially the following sections. Here's how to handle them so they don't trip you up.
Selective Service Information
Male applicants between the ages of 18 and 25 must register for Selective Service to be eligible for aid. If you need to register, you can check the box and the FAFSA will do it for you. Male applicants 26 and over must still answer the question. If you are male, over 25, and did not register for Selective Service when you were younger, you may not be eligible for federal financial aid. Talk to your financial aid office. Women may skip this question.
Parents And Independent Students
Even if your parents aren't providing any money for your education, you may still be classified as a dependent student for the FAFSA.
To be an independent student, you must meet at least one of the following criteria:
- Be at least 24
- Be married (legally married same-sex marriages count)
- Be a graduate student
- Have dependents of your own (that you primarily support)
- Be a veteran or on active military duty
- Be an orphan or ward of the court
- Be in foster care
- Be a minor emancipated from your parents
- Be verifiably homeless
If you don't meet those criteria, you probably need to provide your parents' income information. If you think you have extenuating circumstances not listed above, contact the financial aid office at your first-choice college to see if you might be eligible for a dependency override.
If your parents are divorced or separated, only include the information about the parent whom you live with for more than half of the year, as well as his or her spouse if that parent remarried (including same-sex stepparents).
W-2 forms and tax returns will help you here. If a question doesn't apply to you—like you didn't receive combat pay—then you can enter $0. A good rule of thumb: If you don't recognize the type of income, then you probably don't have it.
Anyone who filed tax returns for last year can complete this section by using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). You will need your federal tax return information (if you filed) from 2 years prior to when you will begin school. For a fall 2018 enrollment, you’ll need to use your 2016 financial information. As long as you completed your tax returns, you may use the IRS DRT. The IRS DRT is available around 3 weeks after e-filing taxes or around 11 weeks after paper filing. If you can’t use this tool, you'll have to enter the data from the tax documents you have on hand.
Please note: If you are required to report your parents' or your spouse's income, report each person's income individually. You must provide this information even if your spouse or parents will not be paying for your education.
If you own property, don't count your primary residence. If you have more than one piece of property (good for you!), include the net value (equity) of that property. Do not include retirement (IRA and 401(k)) accounts that you or your parents have. These aren't used in calculating your federal financial aid eligibility.
The value of rental apartments would also be included here. If you live in a two-family home, for example, and you receive rental income for one of the two apartments, you would need to include it as an investment
The FAFSA asks about your family size and college attendance so it can account for those expenses when determining your family's need for aid. You should only list siblings that your parents financially support. If your older sister is at college, comes home for breaks, and gets tuition help from your parents, include her. If she is in graduate school and lives on her own, don't.
If your spouse is incarcerated, or if your sibling is under 24 and incarcerated, you should still count them as a household member.
Sending Information To Schools
The FAFSA will send your information on to your schools. If you are applying to several schools, include all of them. You'll need to look up the federal school codes for each one. You can list a maximum of 10 schools on an online FAFSA. If you need to add more schools, you can update your FAFSA to swap the new ones in later.
Finally! All you need to do is sign by entering your FSA ID. A parent will have to do the same if you are a dependent undergraduate student.
Completing the FAFSA is the first step in the financial aid process. About 2 to 4 weeks after you submit your FAFSA, you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) by mail or email. The SAR will give you a summary of everything you reported on the FAFSA, and it will tell you what your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is. You can also access your SAR online.
You aren't done after completing the FAFSA. There may be additional forms—check with each school you are applying to. About 1/3 of students are asked to complete a verification process that double-checks certain information on the FAFSA. It doesn't mean you've done something wrong, but you have to follow up about it.