How to fill out the FAFSA and get financial aid for college

  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, more commonly called the FAFSA, is a form used to apply for financial aid.
  • Undergraduate and graduate students both fill out the FAFSA for student aid, though the available financial aid may differ depending on your student status.
  • Make sure you have your personal financial information ready and never hesitate to reach out to your school's financial aid office for help.
  • Filling out the FAFSA usually takes less than an hour, but it's a good idea to block out a little more time if you need to look anything up along the way.
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Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a perfect time for a prospective student to get more involved with their own finances and get a better understanding of how a family's money works.

If you are a student, you will need some information from your parents for the FAFSA. But parents, you can't do it alone. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a team effort. 

The FAFSA opens on October 1.

How to fill out the FAFSA

1. Gather your personal financial information

Before you start filling out the FAFSA, you should gather your basic personal financial information. You'll need your Social Security number, and it may be useful to have the last couple of years' taxes on hand, though you'll be able to import the details directly from the IRS later on. You will also need bank and investment statements.

2. Head to the FAFSA website

Head to the FAFSA website, which is located on the US Department of Education website. This is your online hub to complete your FAFSA. Choose the appropriate button for new FAFSA users or returning users.

3. Create or find your FSA ID

The student and parent should both have their own login for the FAFSA system. You log in with a government ID called the FSA ID. Parents will enter the student's information first and create their FSA ID in the next step.

The FSA ID allows you to log back in and add or edit information later on if you are not able to complete the entire FAFSA today. Parents should not log in as the student or complete the student sections of the FAFSA.

4. Start your FAFSA

The FAFSA opens every year on October 1 for the following school year. It's a good idea to complete your FAFSA as early as possible. This gives you the best opportunity to qualify for the most favorable student aid options. It also gives you a little more time to make your decisions and take care of any paperwork to complete your student loan or work-study applications.

The FAFSA typically includes the following sections: Student Demographics, School Selection, Dependency Status, Parent Demographics, Financial Information, Sign & Submit, and Confirmation.

5. Create a Save Key

The first step along the way is creating a Save Key. Like an FSA ID, this allows you to come back or continue work later on. Students should create this and give it to their parent so they can add their own information later.

6. Enter your personal and school information

The first two sections in the meat of the application focus on the student's personal information and school selection. In the student demographics section, you'll need to enter your name, address, email address, phone number, driver's license number, marital status, citizenship status, Selective Service status, and education history.

On the School Selection tab, you will enter information about your high school and college. If you have your college's Federal School Code, you can enter it here. Or you can look it up with a search system. Once you pick your school and enter your planned housing status, you can move on to information about the household and parents.

7. Dependency and parent demographics

Next up are the sections about the student's household. The questions about dependency status help determine whether the student is financially independent or dependent on the parents for the purposes of financial aid.

The parent demographics section asks for the parents' marital status, birthdates, living situation, household size, and the other people your parents financially support.

8. Financial information

This section is the most important and most detailed of the entire FAFSA. While getting your name and Social Security number right are important, this is what determines what aid you are eligible for and how it is broken down between scholarships and grants, student loans, and other forms of aid.

You'll need your parents' tax information, and depending on when they filed, you may be able to import their tax details and save a lot of time typing in numbers. 

You will need a parent's FSA ID to link the application to the parent's tax return. You will also need some information about your parents' assets (bank accounts and investments).

9. Sign and submit

On the last page, you will review your application for accuracy, sign, and submit the results. It's definitely worth taking the time to double check your application before signing. Once you're done, make sure your parent has also signed if required.

Once everyone has signed and submitted, you can move on to the final page to confirm your FAFSA.

10. Review your FAFSA results

On the confirmation page, you can scroll down to view your estimated expected family contribution. This number shows what the government thinks you can afford to pay. Work with your school's financial aid office to make up the rest.

Student loans may be a great way to help you pay for college, but make sure you really understand what you are getting into. If you navigate the student aid program with your eyes open to the details, you can make the most educated decision on what's best for your family's unique financial needs.

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