At a Glance:
It’s important for all college students to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Here's a look at who is eligible for federal aid, how to apply, important dates to watch out for, and what your next steps will be.
If you’re preparing for college, one of the first things you should do is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which you can do at FAFSA.gov. The FAFSA is used to award financial aid, grants, and work-study programs. It’s your best shot at accessing “free” money to attend school.
Filling out the FAFSA will also allow you to fill in any gaps with low-interest federal loans. Let’s learn more about the FAFSA, why it’s important to fill one out, and how you can complete yours.
On this page:
- The Importance of the FAFSA
- Dates and Deadlines to Remember
- FAFSA Eligibility Criteria
- Steps to Complete the FAFSA
- What Happens After You Submit the FAFSA?
The Importance of the FAFSA
As many as one in seven students who are eligible for financial aid for higher education do not file a FAFSA, according to a Brookings Institution report.
For prospective college students, filling out a FAFSA is one of the best ways you can set yourself up for success. The Department of Education found that there’s a strong correlation between FAFSA completion and college enrollment.
Ninety percent of high school seniors who fill out a FAFSA will attend college the following year as opposed to only 55 percent of those who don’t fill one out.
Filling out a FAFSA can help determine whether you qualify for grant programs, scholarships, federal Pell Grants, federal student loans, and federal work-study jobs. Federal student loans have much lower interest rates and offer more consumer protections than private loans. And some student aid programs offer grants or scholarships the student won't ever have to pay back.
Many students don’t fill out a FAFSA because they don’t think they’ll qualify when actually, the opposite is true. For every student who fills out a FAFSA, almost all of them will qualify for federal loans, and 85 percent will qualify for some type of financial aid. The FAFSA4caster on fafsa.ed.gov can help you estimate your eligibility.
Dates and Deadlines to Remember
Not only is it important to fill out the FAFSA, but you’ll also want to begin the submission process as soon as possible. Federal aid is distributed on a first come, first served basis, so procrastinating could cause you to miss out on money for school.
Here are a few important dates and deadlines you’ll want to keep in mind:
- FAFSA open date: October 1st
- Federal FAFSA deadline: June 30th
However, individual states and colleges will set their own deadlines. Often, these deadlines are much earlier than the federal deadlines.
FAFSA Eligibility Criteria
Almost all students are eligible for some form of financial aid. However, you do have to meet the following requirements:
- You must be a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national, or an eligible non-citizen
- You must have a valid Social Security number
- You must have a high school diploma or GED
- Males from the ages of 18 to 25 must be registered with the U.S. Selective Service
- You must promise to use any awarded federal aid for educational purposes only
- You cannot owe refunds on any federal student grants
- You cannot have been found guilty of either owning or selling illegal drugs when you were receiving financial aid
Steps to Complete the FAFSA
Once you have ensured that you meet all the student financial aid eligibility criteria and know all of the important deadlines, it’s time to get to work on the FAFSA form.
Get Your FAFSA ID
Every student has to have an FSA ID before they can complete their application. The U.S. Department of Education recommends doing this as soon as possible to avoid any possible delays.
Your FSA ID is the username and password you’ll use to log into the Department of Education website. It will allow you to access information about your federal aid for years to come.
Before you begin your application, make sure you have all the necessary information and paperwork. This includes:
- Your Social Security card
- Your driver's license
- All necessary tax information
- Your current bank statements
Answer Family-Related Questions
Often, students are surprised when they have to provide household and financial information. This includes things like how many people are living in your household, your parents’ marital status, and more.
IRS Data Retrieval Tool
The IRS Data Retrieval Tool allows you to transfer your tax return directly into the FAFSA form. This ensures that you avoid any possible mistakes during the application process.
List the Schools Where You’ll Apply
You’ll need to list all the schools you are considering attending, even if you haven’t applied to some of them yet. If you change your mind and decide not to apply, it’s easy to go back and remove a school at a later date.
But if you wait to add a school you are considering, you could miss out on potential aid. A common question is how many schools you can add. You can add up to 10 schools to your FAFSA at one time. Here is what you should do if you want to add more than 10 schools to your application.
How Is the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) Calculated?
Many students wonder how their student aid is calculated. Your eligibility is largely calculated based on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
The EFC is calculated using a formula that includes your family’s taxable income, assets, and any benefits received. It also considers your family size and the number of dependents who will be attending college in the coming year.
What Happens After You Submit the FAFSA?
Once you submit the FAFSA, your application will be processed within seven to 10 days. In the meantime, here are follow-up actions you can take:
- Submitting any necessary forms: The colleges you are applying to may require additional paperwork.
- Review the Student Aid Report: Your Student Aid Report (SAR) summarizes all the information you submitted. You’ll want to look over this closely to make sure everything on the report is correct.
- Correct or update information: Make sure you fix any incorrect information on your FAFSA. This is also a good time to update your list of potential colleges. You can make FAFSA corrections here. You can also talk to a representative at 1-800-4-FED-AID.
- Verify your information: Some colleges will require that students verify that the information on their FAFSA form is correct. If this happens, you’ll be notified by the school and asked to submit follow-up documents.
- Review your aid package: Once you start getting accepted into various colleges, you’ll begin receiving financial aid offers from each school. Accept all of the grants and aid you can before you take out any student loans.
- Appeal if you think you should get more aid awarded: Of course, you don’t have to accept any of the aid you’re offered. You can always appeal your offer with the college’s financial aid office.