FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and it’s the form virtually every college uses to determine how much any student is eligible to receive in total aid. The FAFSA asks for a lot of information, so be prepared to spend some time with it.
It can be overwhelming, but the website is fairly easy to use and you don’t have to do it all in one sitting. Most important: Fill out the FAFSA as soon as you can, because your aid package depends on it. FAFSA season starts on October 1 for the next school year (so your 2020 FAFSA is for the 2021–22 school year, for example).
How To Fill Out FAFSA
Step 1: Set Up Your FSA ID
Before you get started, you’ll need to set up your FSA ID (username and password) on https://fsaid.ed.gov. Once you have that, you can begin entering your personal and financial information into the FAFSA.
Because it’s set up as a smart form, it may ask additional questions based on information you supply; if some information doesn’t apply to your situation, the form will skip those questions. Once it’s completed and signed, the information will be sent to all the schools you list.
Step 2: Gather These Documents
You’ll need information from several different sources to complete your FAFSA, and even more if you are considered a dependent student (which most students under age twenty-four are).
One parent of each dependent student will need their own FSA ID to report parents’ information. Before you log in to work on the form, have these handy:
- Social security number
- Driver’s license
- Prior year’s federal income tax return (2019 tax return for 2020 FAFSA, for example)
- Prior year’s W-2 forms
- Prior year’s untaxed income
- Current bank statement
- Current investment account statement
Parents of dependent students will also supply income, tax, and account information on the FAFSA.
Students under age twenty-four are considered dependent unless they’re married, have non-spouse dependents, are veterans or active-duty military, or are orphans. Less than 15 percent of students under twenty-four qualify as independent each year.
Step 3: Get Help
The first F in FAFSA stands for “free,” and there’s a lot of free help available if you have trouble filling it out. Your first stop is the Federal Student Aid website (www.studentaid.ed.gov) where you’ll find direct links to the FAFSA, a wealth of information on the process for students and parents, and a FAFSA app that walks you through the forms.
You’ll also find a link for the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which auto-fills in the tax return data so you don’t have to worry about typing a number wrong (which can get your application rejected).
For more assistance, visit the Form Your Future website (www.formyourfuture.org) to find a complete FAFSA guide written in simple, straightforward (nongovernment) language.
The site also has a list of online and in-person resources by state, including events designed to walk families through the FAFSA process, normally held at local high schools.
Step 4: Understand Your Award Letter
Once you’ve submitted your completed FAFSA, the schools you’ve been accepted to will begin to send you financial aid letters (sometimes combined with the acceptance letter). These aid letters will be jam-packed with information, and it’s very important to read through them so you can make an informed comparison.
While people tend to zero in on the total aid offered, that is not the most important number. Instead, focus on the difference between the total school cost and the aid offered; a higher-cost school could actually end up being the most affordable choice.
Student aid is a broad term that includes grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans. Your aid letter may include a combination of these, and will list the exact amount each will contribute toward your education—but they are not really equal contributors.
Grants and scholarships are free money that does not need to be paid back. Some scholarships come with strings (like maintaining a minimum GPA), and you can lose that money if you don’t comply.
Work-study offers you limited earnings to help offset college costs, but you will be giving up social and study time to earn it. Student loans, whether they’re federal or private, need to be paid back with interest, even if you don’t finish school.
Step 5: Know Your COA and Your Cost
Your aid letter will also include the cost of attendance (COA) and the amount you’ll have to pay (your cost). The COA is an estimate of how much you’ll pay to go to that school for one year.
It normally lists tuition, fees, and room and board but may not include things like books and supplies. Some costs may turn out to be different if your class schedule changes or you end up in a different dorm room, for example.
The difference between your COA and your financial aid (if you choose to accept what’s offered) is your cost, the additional funds you need to come up with through either savings, additional scholarships, or more private loans.