If you want financial aid, your first step is to apply for it. The place to start is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the primary application for need-based financial aid. Most colleges will use information from your FAFSA to create your financial aid award.
By All Means, File a FAFSA
Many families with children in college do not file a FAFSA. Some believe they are not eligible for aid. Others think the form is just too complicated. But anyone who fills out the FAFSA will at least qualify for a federally insured, low-cost loan—and perhaps other valuable aid such as Pell grants.
What the FAFSA Asks
The FAFSA asks for information about both student and parents (if the student is unmarried and under 24). This information includes income and assets and basic facts about the student's household. It must be accurate as of the day you file your FAFSA.
What Happens When You File Your FAFSA
Information from your FAFSA determines your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is the amount you and your family will be expected to pay for college, no matter what college you attend. Colleges use your EFC to calculate how much government aid you are eligible for. Most colleges also use your EFC to calculate your eligibility for financial aid from their own funds. You'll receive your EFC from one to three weeks after submitting your FAFSA in a document called the Student Aid Report (SAR).
When to File Your FAFSA
The first day you can submit the FAFSA is January 1 for the following school year. Filing the FAFSA early in the year will put you near the front of the line for financial aid. The critical deadlines to meet are the priority financial aid deadlines of the colleges you apply to and your state's FAFSA deadline. There's a new version of the FAFSA each school year, and you must update your FAFSA annually to keep getting aid.
How to Fill Out the FAFSA
You can complete the entire FAFSA application online at fafsa.ed.gov. (A paper FAFSA is also available.) The FAFSA website provides a list of documents you should have on hand when you fill out the FAFSA. Most important, you will need your and your parents' most recent income tax information. If you file online, you can transfer your tax information from the IRS website directly into your FAFSA. If you have not filed your latest return, estimate the information.
How to Line Up Colleges to Get Your FAFSA Results
You can select up to ten colleges to receive your SAR. (You can add more colleges later.) You will need the federal school code for each college, available on fafsa.ed.edu. These colleges will see your EFC, a summary of the information you reported on your FAFSA, and the colleges you listed in the order you listed them. If you don't want some colleges to see this list, you can send them your FAFSA results later. Or you can put the colleges in alphabetical order to indicate that the list is not based on priority.
Where to Get FAFSA Help
Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Your high school counselor, a college's financial aid office, and the FAFSA website are all good resources. During January and February, many states hold "College Goal Sunday," where students can get free, onsite, professional assistance with completing the FAFSA form. Visit collegegoalsundayusa.org to find specific locations and dates in your state.
How to Make Changes to Your FAFSA
Your FAFSA should be accurate as of the day you sign it. If you find mistakes on your FAFSA or SAR, you can submit corrections via the FAFSA website or by calling (800) 433-3243. However, changes to your or your family's financial situation that occur after you sign your FAFSA usually cannot be updated. You can contact the college's financial aid office and explain your situation. You may be asked to submit a letter detailing the new considerations, backed up by copies of relevant documents.
What to Do If You Are Selected for "Verification"
Sometimes, colleges will ask you to provide documentation for the information in your SAR. Be sure to save the records and materials you used to complete the FAFSA in case this happens. And be sure to print a copy of the FAFSA before you submit it. Often, colleges will request your latest tax return if you didn't file taxes before submitting your FAFSA. To avoid this problem, file your taxes before filing your FAFSA or update your SAR as soon as you submit your tax return.
- See I'd Like More Financial Aid, Please for information on appealing your EFC.
- Learn about the CSS PROFILE, another aid application used by colleges.
- Use the EFC Calculator to estimate your Expected Family Contribution.
Note: Financial information provided on this site is of a general nature and may not apply to your situation. Contact a financial or tax advisor before acting on such information.