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Smart Money

Complete Guide to Filling Out Your FAFSA

Filling out the FAFSA application can help you receive financial aid for college. This complete guide tells you everything you need to know about the FAFSA.

Choncé Maddox • October 4, 2022

In This Article

  1. What is the FAFSA?
  2. FAFSA timeline
  3. FAFSA: types of financial aid
  4. How to fill out your FAFSA: step-by-step
  5. FAQs
  6. See if you qualify for financial aid

It’s no secret that college is expensive. From 2010 to 2020, the cost to attend a 4-year public college increased by 4.63% year over year.¹ For students planning to attend college in fall 2023, filling out the FAFSA is one of the most critical steps to paying for college. 

Not everyone will qualify for government grants and college aid, but the FAFSA can help you determine for what you may qualify. Skipping over this application could leave money on the table, causing you to pursue other loans or sources of income to cover the cost of school. Completing the FAFSA is free, easy, and won’t take much time.

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for Free Application For Federal Student Aid. It’s an online application you can fill out to see if you qualify for federal grants, loans, or work-study programs for college or career school. 

You can send your results to a few colleges or universities of your choice after you fill out the FAFSA. Schools can use your FAFSA data to provide some of your qualifying aid. 

To apply, you’ll need certain information like your social security number, your parent’s social security number, federal tax forms, or your Alien Registration number if you’re not a U.S. citizen.²

FAFSA timeline

It’s crucial to complete your FAFSA on time since there are strict deadlines to receive aid. 

When does the FAFSA open?

The FAFSA is available each year on October 1 for the next school year. So, if you plan to attend school in the fall of 2023, you can begin filling out your FAFSA as soon as October 1, 2022. 

The simplest way to fill out your FAFSA is online, by visiting FederdalStudentAid.gov. You can also print out a FAFSA form to fill out and mail. Another option is to request a printout of the form be mailed to you by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).

When is the FAFSA due?

The federal deadline for submitting your FAFSA is usually around June 30th. If you are applying for aid for the 2023 – 2024 school year, the FAFSA deadline will be June 30th, 2024, at 11:59 pm CT. 

If you need to make corrections to your FAFSA application, you can do this through September 14th of that same calendar year.

Since these dates could change over time, check the FAFSA website to confirm the deadline. Also, states may have their own deadlines for submitting the FAFSA. Some give you almost a year to fill it out, while others offer less time.

If you’ve applied to a specific school or have a few schools that interest you, consider contacting their financial aid department to confirm if they have a different FAFSA deadline.

When should I fill out my FAFSA?

Try to fill out your FAFSA application as soon as possible after October 1. The earlier you apply, the more federal aid you could get, since funds run out as time goes on. 

Starting your FAFSA early also gives you enough time to gather additional documents you might need, like your parents’ tax forms. Even if you don’t know what school you’ll attend yet, you should still fill out your FAFSA since you can send it to up to 10 different universities.

FAFSA: types of financial aid

When your FAFSA is accepted and reviewed, you could qualify for different types of aid. The aid type and funding amount appear on your financial aid award letter. This same letter will get sent to the schools you named during the application. You’ll also have access to a copy. 

Here is a summary of the type of aid you might expect. 

Federal grants

Everyone loves grants: they are essentially free money you don’t need to pay back. Some grants have conditions you must meet to keep the money, like not withdrawing from school. You could lose your grant if you receive a grant like a TEACH Grant and don’t continue to meet the required obligations.

The most common type of federal grant is the Pell Grant, awarded only to undergraduate students demonstrating financial need. Pell grant awards only apply to one school of your choice, but you can split the funds between semesters.

There’s also the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) for undergraduate students with the most financial need. Some states also have educational grants that can appear on your FAFSA financial aid award letter if you qualify.

Student loans

You can receive several types of student loans if you apply for a FAFSA. If the maximum amount of grant money you receive does not fully cover tuition and educational costs, loans can fill in the gaps.

Federal student loans have maximum borrowing and interest rates, but interest is often lower than private loans. Depending on the type of federal student loan, your interest may not even accrue while you’re in college.

Direct Subsidized loans are available to undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need. With these loans, you won’t accrue interest while actively attending school at least part-time, since the Department of Education will pick up interest fees while you’re a student.

With Direct Unsubsidized student loans, there’s no requirement to demonstrate financial need, and undergraduate and graduate students can get these loans. 

Direct PLUS or Parent PLUS loans allow a parent to take out a loan for their dependent’s higher education costs. 

Work-study

Work-study, short for the Federal Work-Study Program, will enable you to earn money to pay for school by working part-time. Colleges and universities that accept financial aid will have certain jobs available on campus that are work-study eligible. 

Work-study jobs will pay at least the federal minimum wage, and you’ll work part-time hours. You can choose your own work-study job from the opportunities on campus, but the amount of your award will vary depending on the school’s funding level and how much financial aid you qualify for.

Military and international study

If you or your spouse or parent has served in the military,  some financial aid programs are available for school. The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Scholarship (ROTC) is based on merit rather than financial need. The ROTC scholarship, Navy scholarships, and Marine ROTC scholarships are available at more than 1,000 colleges across the U.S. 

If you’re studying outside of the U.S., you may still be able to receive financial aid if the school accepts federal aid programs. You can also use the aid benefits you receive to cover educational costs for studying abroad.  

Get the scoop on student loans, student jobs, credit cards, and budgeting in our college finance guide.

How to fill out your FAFSA: step-by-step

Completing your FAFSA correctly and on time could be the difference between receiving thousands of dollars of financial aid. But don’t worry; we can walk you through the process step-by-step. 

Step 1: Create a FAFSA ID

Visit FederalStudentAid.gov to create your FAFSA ID. Use your account username and password to access your application and review the status.

Parents can also create a FAFSA ID to sign their dependent child’s FAFSA online.

Step 2: Select which form you’d like to complete

Depending on when you start working on your FAFSA, there may be more than one application open. For example, the application for the current school year and the following school year can be available simultaneously. 

Make sure you choose the correct school year you want to apply for before you start your application.  

Step 3: Start completing your FAFSA online

Completing the FAFSA online is the easiest and quickest way to submit your application. If you mail the form instead, you’ll still need to submit the same information. There’s a demographic section where you will enter your name, birth date, and social security number. 

There’s also a parent demographic section where you can add your parents’ financial information if you’re still a dependent. When providing financial information, you’ll need to upload a copy of your parents’ federal tax form from the current or previous year. You can also supply your own federal tax form.

Finally, list the schools to which you want to send your financial aid information. Remember, adding more schools to your list doesn’t hurt if you’re unsure where you’ll attend. 

Step 4: Submit your FAFSA

Check to ensure all your information is complete and accurate. Then, sign and submit your FAFSA application. Using your FAFSA ID when signing for your FAFSA form is the quickest way to submit the application so it can begin processing. 

Your application will be processed within three to five days if submitted online and seven to 10 business days. 

FAQs

How much income do you need for the FAFSA?

There are no income limits to apply for a FAFSA. Instead, the application considers your financial need using an EFC or expected family contribution number. This number helps determine which types of aid you can qualify for and up to how much. 

For example, if your EFC number is determined to be 0, you could qualify for the maximum amount of aid.³

Who qualifies for FAFSA?

To be eligible, you must demonstrate that you have financial need and are a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen (U.S permanent resident). You must also be enrolled in a degree or certificate program at your college or career school.

You will not be eligible to complete a FAFSA application if you:

  • Are a non-U.S. citizen
  • Have a criminal conviction
  • Are not enrolled in school at least part-time

Is FAFSA free financial aid?

Not entirely. The FAFSA is an application that is free to fill out. If you qualify for a variety of aid options as a result, all of them won’t be free. For example, federal student loans will cost you money since you must repay them, but grants are free.

See if you qualify for financial aid

If you qualify for the FAFSA, you should work on submitting your application as soon as it’s available. The application is free and easy to fill out. You may qualify for grants, a work-study job, or even federal student loans that could help you save compared to private loans

Knowing that you have some additional aid can lighten the financial burden of attending college.

When creating a plan to pay for college, understand the difference between federal and private student loans.

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1Pulled from the Education Data Initiative on September 22, 2022: https://educationdata.org/college-tuition-inflation-rate
2Pulled from the Federal Student Aid website on September 22, 2022: https://studentaid.gov/apply-for-aid/fafsa/filling-out
3Pulled from Best Colleges: FAFSA Income Limits on September 22, 2022: https://www.bestcolleges.com/student-finance/fafsa-income-limits/

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