If you want financial aid, your first step is to apply for it. The place to start is the FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Think you won't qualify for aid? Consider filing the FAFSA anyway. Here's why.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the primary application for need-based financial aid. Colleges use your FAFSA results to allocate the majority of their financial aid.
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 can qualify for, at the very least, a federally insured low-cost loan. Not only did these families miss a good deal, but they potentially missed out on other valuable aid, such as Pell grants.
What the FAFSA Asks
The FAFSA asks for information about both students 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. The FAFSA also asks you to list the colleges that you want to receive your FAFSA results.
The Results of Filing a 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 this figure to calculate how much federal and state aid you are eligible for. Most colleges also use your EFC to calculate your eligibility for their "institutional" aid—financial aid that comes from their own funds. (If you want an estimate of your EFC, use CollegeData's EFC Calculator.)
When to File Your FAFSA
There's a new version of the FAFSA each school year—and you must renew your FAFSA annually to keep getting aid. The first day you can submit the FAFSA is January 1 for the following school year. Filing the FAFSA close to January 1 will put you near the front of the line for financial aid.
Important FAFSA Deadlines
The critical deadlines to meet are the priority financial aid deadlines of the colleges you apply to and your state's FAFSA deadline. These deadlines fall as early as mid-January and as late as July. For college deadlines, check the financial aid web pages of the colleges you are applying to. The deadline is also shown on the Money Matters page of the college's Profile on CollegeData. For state deadlines, check fafsa.ed.gov.
The federal FAFSA deadline does not fall until June 30 of the year following the FAFSA's release. This means you have 18 months to submit a FAFSA and may do so at any point during the college academic year. Even if most aid is already distributed, you would then be eligible to obtain a low-interest federal loan for the current academic year.
Preparing to File a FAFSA
To start the online application process, go to pin.ed.gov to get your Personal Identification Number (PIN) and set up your password. Keep them in a safe place because you will use your PIN and password every time you access and renew your FAFSA. If you want to file a paper copy, you can print out a PDF version of the FAFSA, which is available on fafsa.ed.gov.
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' income tax information from the previous two years. If you file online and your tax returns have been submitted, you will have the option of securely transferring your IRS tax information into your FAFSA. If you have not prepared your latest return, fill out your FAFSA using estimated information or use a free online tax estimator.
You can prepare a practice FAFSA by filling out the "FAFSA on the Web Worksheet." It lists all the FAFSA questions in the same order as they appear on the official FAFSA. The worksheet is available on the FAFSA website and may also be available from your high school counselor.
By the way, if your parents are divorced or separated, you only need to provide information for the parent with whom you lived more than 50 percent during the past 12 months. If you lived with both parents equally, then use the parent who provided most of your financial support.
Filling Out the FAFSA
You can fill out the FAFSA online at fafsa.ed.gov. The online FAFSA greatly enhances your efficiency and accuracy. It identifies and removes irrelevant questions based on your answers to previous questions, and detects and alerts you to errors. You can submit the FAFSA at the click of a mouse and receive a speedy verification that it was received. If you are filling out a paper copy of the FAFSA, complete a practice version first, and then neatly and legibly fill out the copy you will send. Be sure to make a copy of your FAFSA before submitting it.
If you have limited access to the Internet, or you are up against federal or state deadlines, you may access and submit your FAFSA by calling (800) 433-3243. You'll be connected to a live customer service representative who will input your data and submit it for processing.
You may be able to get free professional help filling out your FAFSA. During January and February, many states hold "College Goal Sunday," where students can get free onsite professional assistance to fill out the FAFSA form. Visit collegegoalsundayusa.org to find specific locations and dates in your state.
Lining Up Colleges to Get Your FAFSA Results
While completing your FAFSA, you will be prompted to list colleges that you want to receive the results. (You can list ten colleges if filing online and four colleges if filing a paper copy.) You will need the federal school code for each college, which is available on fafsa.ed.edu. Since every college that receives your results will see the colleges you listed in the order you listed them, the simplest strategy is to put your top priority college first. If you have no strong preferences, a list in alphabetical order should make it crystal clear that the list is not based on priority.
After you receive your SAR (see below), you can arrange for more colleges to receive your FAFSA results. Log into fafsa.ed.gov, select "Make a correction," and follow the instructions. You can also submit changes by calling (800) 433-3243 or by calling the college you want to add. Be sure to confirm that the colleges you have previously submitted have downloaded your information before replacing them with new colleges.
Seeing Your FAFSA Results
Within one to three weeks, you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR), which contains your EFC. You can choose to receive a paper SAR by mail or a link to an online SAR by e-mail. The colleges you listed on your FAFSA also get your SAR. Once you apply to those colleges they will figure your financial aid package based on your EFC. They may ask for additional financial information in order to allocate their own need-based aid.
Changes to Your FAFSA
Your FAFSA should be accurate as of the day you sign it. If you find mistakes on your 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. For example, even if the amount of your savings reduces after you sign the FAFSA, the savings amount you reported on your FAFSA must go into the calculation.
There is no system to appeal to the government for an EFC recalculation. However, you can contact the college's financial aid office and explain your situation to them. You may be able to submit a letter detailing the new considerations, backed up by copies of relevant documents. Most schools realize circumstances change and are willing to listen. (For more on appealing your EFC, see our article I'd Like More Aid, Please.)
If You Are Selected for "Verification"
Some SARs are flagged for "verification," which can delay aid processing. If this happens, you will need to provide documentation to the college for the information the college specifies. Selection for SAR verification can be random, or based on incomplete, estimated, or inconsistent data. Save the records and materials that you used to complete the FAFSA just in case you are selected. One commonly requested document is your latest tax return, if it was not filed before you sent in your FAFSA. You can avoid this by filing your taxes before filing your FAFSA or by updating your SAR as soon as you submit your tax return.
You can hardly be blamed for feeling a little anxious about filling out a form that asks for so much information. But if you line up your answers before you start, the process can go fairly quickly. Bear in mind that colleges want to give you aid. But they can't do that until you provide evidence of just how much aid you actually need.
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.