A Student’s Complete Guide to the FAFSA

College is expensive. With U.S. student loan debt at $1.7 trillion as of August 2020,  students are stuck wondering whether the risk of going into debt outweighs the benefits of seeking higher education. However, overwhelming tuition costs can be made much more affordable by applying for financial aid.

Filling out the FAFSA is the first step in getting the aid you need to pursue your college ambitions. While completing the FAFSA can be intimidating, familiarizing yourself with the application will make the process quick and simple.

If you’re a rising senior preparing for college, read on for a complete guide to the FAFSA.

What is FAFSA?

The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, allows students to apply for need-based financial aid from the federal government, state governments, and colleges. If you qualify for financial assistance, it may come in any of the following forms:

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Work-study programs
  • Loans

What is My Dependency Status?

When filling out the FAFSA, you will be asked whether you are an independent or dependent student.

Independent students must meet one of the following criteria: at least 24 years old, married, a graduate, a veteran, a member of the armed forces, an orphan, a ward of the court, an emancipated minor, homeless, at risk of becoming homeless, or someone with legal dependents other than a spouse.

As an independent student, you may not be required to provide parental information on the FAFSA (unless you are married, in which you’ll have to provide your spouse’s financial information).

Dependent students do not meet any of the criteria, and are required to provide their family’s financial information on the FAFSA form.

Am Eligible to Apply?

The Department of Education lists the following criteria you must meet in order to be eligible for federal student aid:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen
  • Have a Social Security Number
  • Have a high school diploma or a General Education Development (GED) certificate
  • Be enrolled in school and be seeking a degree
  • Maintain good grades
  • Not owe a refund on a federal student grant or be in default on a federal student loan
  • Are registered with the Selective Service System if you are a male not currently on active duty in the military
  • Not be convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs while receiving federal aid

Before Filling out the FAFSA

The first step in the financial aid process is creating a Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID). The FSA ID is a username and password that enables you to sign the FAFSA form online and access certain U.S Department of Education websites. You can create an FSA ID here.

Note: If you’re a dependent student, your parent will need to make their own FSA ID.

When Can I Apply?

The FAFSA is released on October 1st every year, and the deadline to submit is on June 30th of the following year.

The closer you apply to October 1st, the better your chances are at receiving aid. This is because some colleges award aid on a first-come, first-served basis, and give away most of their money early on. Additionally, you will have more time to make corrections on your Student Aid Report (which we’ll talk about later in this article).

Don’t procrastinate, get it out of the way!

Gather Your Financial Information

When you fill out the FAFSA, you will be asked about your financial situation, and having the required documentation handy will speed up this process. Depending on your family’s circumstances, collecting the necessary paperwork can be complicated and time-consuming. To ensure you apply for the FAFSA early on, it may be a good idea for you and your parents to begin gathering the following documents as soon as possible:

  • You and your parents’ FSA IDs and Social Security numbers.
  • Your driver’s license number (if you have one).
  • Alien registration number (if you aren’t a U.S. citizen).
  • Your federal tax returns from the prior-prior year, W-2s, and other records of money earned.
  • Your parents’ federal tax and tax return information. This includes:
    • W-2s and 1099 forms
    • IRS 1040
    • Foreign tax return, IRS 1040NR, or IRS 1040NR-EZ.
  • Bank statements and records of investments.
  • Records of untaxed income.

How to Fill Out the FAFSA

After you have created you FSA ID and gathered all the necessary documentation, you can finally begin filling out the FAFSA. When logging in, select I am the student and input your FSA ID. You will then have access to the 7 sections of the FAFSA: student demographics, school selection, dependency status, parent demographics, financial information, sign and submit, and confirmation. Complete each of these sections carefully, checking that the information is accurate as you fill out the application:

1. Student demographics

The FAFSA requires that you answer questions about basic personal information to help the federal government confirm your identity and determine your eligibility for financial aid. Below is the information you will need to provide on your FAFSA:

  • Social Security Number
  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Address
  • Citizenship status
  • Email and phone number
  • Driver’s license number (if you have one)
  • High school education status

  • Intended college degree
  • Marital status
  • Interest in work-study
  • Gender (if you’re male, this determines if you need to register with Selective Service System)
  • Foster youth status
  • Parent(s) highest education received
  • About your high school (name, address, etc.)

2. School selection 

In this section, you can list up to 10 schools you’re considering attending. These schools will receive your FAFSA application and decide if you qualify for additional college aid. If you aren’t sure where exactly you’ll be applying yet, don’t worry. You’ll be able to edit your list even after you submit the FAFSA. Indicate what type of housing plan you are interested in (on campus, with parent, or off campus).

Note: The order in which you list your schools does not matter.

3. Dependency status

In this section, you will be asked a series questions to determine your dependency status. If you are unsure about whether or not you’re an independent student, read more here to find if you will need to list parental information on the FAFSA.

4. Parent demographics

In addition to providing personal information, dependent students must report their parents’ information. First, you will need to determine your parents’ marital status.

  • You will have to provide information about both parents if your parents are married, unmarried and living together, or your FAFSA parent is remarried (then you’ll also need to provide information about your stepparent).
  • You will have to provide information about only one parent if your parents are divorced, informally separated, or your FAFSA parent was never married, divorced, separated, or widowed.

You will not have to complete this section if you’re an independent student.

After providing your parents’ marital status, you will be asked to input their Social Security number, name, birthday, email, household size, and state of residence.

5. Financial information

With parental assistance, you will have to upload your personal finance information from the prior-prior year (the 2021–22 FAFSA form will ask for 2019 tax information). You, the student, also need to provide information about your personal assets — like your checking or savings account balance. Unfortunately, the money you’ve saved from summer jobs is fair game in the FAFSA.

If your parents already filed their IRS tax return, you will have access to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to upload tax forms. The IRS DRT is a fast, accurate, and easy way to transfer your federal tax return information to your FAFSA online. If you’re eligible, follow the steps below:

  1. Click the Link to IRS button at the bottom of the page.
  2. Enter your FSA ID. From here, you’ll be redirected to the IRS website.
  3. Input the required information from your tax return.
  4. After confirming your identity on the IRS site, choose Transfer Now

Once the transfer is complete, you will receive a message confirming that your IRS information was successfully transferred. In all fields the IRS can answer, you’ll see Transferred from the IRS. However, carefully review the form to fill in blank fields that the IRS was unable to answer.

6. Sign and submit 

You made it! It’s time to electronically sign the FAFSA application by using your FSA ID. If you’re a dependent student, your parents will also have to sign by logging in with their FSA ID. Be sure to check that you accurately input all of your information. Then, press submit.

7. Confirmation

After clicking submit, you’ll see a confirmation page like the one below. This means you’ve successfully submitted your FAFSA form! If you provided an email address on the form, you’ll receive the confirmation by email.

The confirmation page also estimates how much you may receive in aid from the Federal Pell Grant and Federal Stafford Loan based on your FAFSA and your Expected Family Contribution (a measure of your ability to pay for college). Remember that these numbers are estimates, and your school will examine your eligibility for aid will depending on additional factors, such as their cost of attendance.

You can calculate the projected amount of aid you may receive from a school’s financial aid office by using the FAFSA4caster.

What Happens After I Press Submit?

It typically takes the U.S. Department of Education 3 to 5 days to processes your application. After processing your application, you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR)—a summary of your FAFSA data—via email. If your application is complete, your SAR will include the federal Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

After your FAFSA is processed, the information is sent to the colleges that you listed on your FAFSA. From there, they can determine your eligibility for federal and nonfederal aid.

Review your SAR and verify that the information correct. If you notice any errors on the report, then edit your FAFSA as soon as possible.

Tip: Ask the financial aid office at prospective colleges if they have additional requirements for receiving financial aid and about inquire about their financial aid application process.

How to make corrections in your FAFSA

If you receive your SAR and realize that your FAFSA is incomplete, contains errors, or is in need of updates, there’s a way to quickly make these changes. You can make corrections by logging in at fafsa.gov with your FSA ID and selecting Make FAFSA Corrections.

Once you submit your corrections, you’ll receive a confirmation number. Your updated FAFSA will take about three to five days to process. You will then get your revised SAR based on your new information.

Keep in mind that providing your most recent financial information on your FAFSA ensures that the government and schools create a financial aid package that is tailored to your financial needs; so, don’t be afraid to make changes!

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