How to apply for FAFSA and Federal Student Aid: Everything You Need to Know

We’re kicking off the school year right by answering your FAFSA questions: how to apply for FAFSA, your FAFSA application, the FAFSA website, and of course the FAFSA deadlines! Grab a slice of pizza and get comfy – we’re diving in!

What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the form that the government, along with several colleges and universities, uses to determine how much financial aid college students should receive each year.

In general, federal student aid (financial aid from the government) is determined based on four factors:

  1. Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
  2. Year in school
  3. Enrollment status (i.e. part-time or full-time)
  4. Estimated Cost of Attendance (COA) at your intended school. Colleges and universities might use a similar method or a completely different one.

The FAFSA becomes available every year on October 1st. Students must complete the FAFSA each year. We recommend filling it out as early as possible as some awards are provided on a first-come, first-served basis. You can find state FAFSA deadlines here.

What are EFC and COA?

When it comes to figuring out how to apply for financial aid, students are often overwhelmed by all the technical jargon. EFC and COA are both determining factors when it comes to deciding financial aid awards. Understanding what they are and how they affect you can help you maximize the aid you receive and make paying for college much easier.

Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is your family’s ability to help you pay for school (i.e. how much they can contribute). It’s based on factors like your parents’ taxed and untaxed income, assets, benefits (like unemployment or social security), your family size, and the number of people in your household also attending college that year. 

Your EFC is determined by a set formula established by law. For more information, check out the official EFC Formula Guide, or our detailed post about calculating EFC here.

Your Cost of Attendance (COA) is the price it will cost to attend your college or university. In addition to tuition, the COA can also factor in the cost of books, transportation, supplies, loan fees, personal expenses, child or dependent care, disability-related costs, and study abroad program expenses.

Student applying for FAFSA

What are the different types of Federal Student Aid?

The U.S. government offers several forms of financial aid, including grants, work-study, and loans, to help students pay for school. Grants are the best form of financial aid since they provide students with money that doesn’t have to be repaid.

Students have a variety of different grants available. The most common are Federal Pell Grants, which are worth up to $6,095 each year and are awarded to undergraduate students with significant financial need. 

Other programs include Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants, and Iraq and Iran Service Grants. For more information, check out our helpful section on federal grants.

Another option is federal work-study, which involves students being provided with part-time jobs while in school. Students can’t work more than a set number of hours per week (usually around 20) and can either work on- or off-campus. For more information about work-study, head over to our comprehensive financial aid guide.

Loans should be your last option for funding your education. The federal government, however, does offer 5 government loan options, all of which are generally better than taking out loans offered by private companies.

The government loan types are: Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Direct PLUS Loans, Direct Consolidation Loans, and the Federal Perkins Loan Program. Check out this article for more info on the different loans offered by the federal government and how you can avoid loans altogether.

What If I Don’t Think I Qualify for Financial Aid?

You should fill out the FAFSA whether you think you qualify or not. It’s free and takes under an hour to complete, so what is there to lose? While your family’s income might be too high to qualify for federal aid, you might still qualify for awards at private universities or colleges. Spending a small portion of your day applying for financial aid could save you thousands of dollars on college tuition.

In fact, in 2018, high school graduates eligible for a Pell Grant left behind $2.6 billion in free aid by not applying for financial aid; don’t let that be you!

Where do I start when I want to apply for FAFSA?

We’ll kick off your FAFSA application with an FSA ID. This is a combination of a username and password so you can easily sign your FAFSA form electronically. The FSA ID also gives you access to the myStudentAid app (filling out the FAFSA form on a mobile device), sign loan contracts, and other online access.

Where should I apply? On a laptop? Phone? 

The FAFSA application is up to date on technology, so you can apply on a computer, laptop, phone, mobile device. Pretty much anywhere! If you’re going to apply for FAFSA on a phone or tablet, we recommend downloading the myStudentAid app. Here’s a link to the app for iOS and Android.

Okay, what documents do I need?

You’ll need a few documents, numbers, and personal information to include in your FAFSA application. Check with your family (parent/parents) if you need access to some of these documents:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers if you are a dependent student
  • Alien Registration number if you are not a U.S. citizen
  • Your driver’s license number (if you have one – if not, don’t sweat it.)
  • Federal tax information or tax returns including IRS W-2 information, for you (and your spouse, if you are married), and for your parents if you are a dependent student:
  • IRS 1040
  • Foreign tax return, IRS 1040NR, or IRS 1040NR-EZ
  • Tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or Palau
  • Untaxed income records, such as child support received, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits, for you, and for your parents if you are a dependent student
  • Information on cash; savings and checking account balances; investments, including stocks and bonds and real estate (but not including the home where you live); and business and farm assets for you, and for your parents if you are a dependent student (check with your family and your bank for this information)
Student learning how to apply for FAFSA

How do I apply for the FAFSA?

Let’s break it down, step by step.

Step 1: Create an FSA ID

Before you begin the FAFSA form, you should create an FSA ID, which serves as your username and password for entering the U.S. Department of Education’s websites. It’s used to confirm your (or your parents’ / parent’s) identity while logging in and can also be used to sign and submit the form. Both students and parents can access the FAFSA, but each person needs their own FSA ID.

Step 2: Begin Your FAFSA at fafsa.gov

Once you have your FSA ID, head over to the Federal Student Aid website. Log in as a student, and then follow the steps to complete the form.

Pro Tip: At the beginning of the application process, you can create a “save key” which temporarily allows you and your parent/student to share the FAFSA. The save key also allows you to return to where you left off in your application.

Step 3: Complete the Student Demographics Section

The first step to completing this section is to make sure you’re filling out the correct section. The parent demographics and student demographics section are different, so make sure to double check that you’re entering the information where it belongs.

You should enter your information exactly as it appears on your Social Security Card or Alien Registration Card. Generally, it’s only necessary to enter this information the first time you fill out the FAFSA. This information should autofill in the years following.

Step 4: Decide Who Receives the Federal Financial Aid Awards

You’re allowed to send your FAFSA to up to 10 colleges and universities. You should list all the schools you’re applying for, even if you haven’t been accepted yet. You can always add and remove schools later if you change your mind. If you wind up not applying for a school or didn’t receive an acceptance letter, schools will automatically disregard your FAFSA.

Step 5: Are You Dependent or Independent?

Dependent students are required to provide parental information on the FAFSA while independent students are not. Keep in mind that the FAFSA uses a different set of requirements than the IRS when it comes to determining dependency. For more info on the FAFSA’s dependency guidelines, check out this page.

Step 6: Complete the Parent Demographics Section

If your status is determined to be “dependent,” you’ll need to complete the parent demographics section. It simply requires your parents’ / parent’s basic info and can be filled out by either you or your parent(s).

Step 7: All About Taxes

The next step is to fill in your and/or your parents’ tax information. To make it easier, the FAFSA has an IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which automatically fills in your information (if you’re eligible to use it). Make sure to double check and fill in all areas that the form doesn’t automatically.

Step 8: Sign, Submit, & Cross Your Fingers!

Surprisingly, many students make it through the FAFSA and then forget to sign and submit it at the end! Make sure to sign the application electronically, and remember, dependent students also need their parents to sign the form! 

I see something called the FAFSA4Caster on the FAFSA website. What is the FAFSA4Caster?

If you really want to get a head start on your FAFSA application – and we mean a HUGE head start! – you can use the FAFSA4Caster, an early estimate of your eligibility for financial aid. The FAFSA4Caster helps students who are not quite ready to apply for FAFSA yet. 

You can run through this program as early as middle school, but it’s recommended for high school juniors to complete the estimate once you’re closer to applying to college.

You’ll answer a series of questions, such as your college’s cost of attendance (COA), estimated Federal Pell Grant, Federal Work-Study, and maximum direct subsidized loan, plus direct unsubsidized loan.

Keep in mind, you must answer every question. The FAFSA mentions even if you have to estimate on a question, make sure you answer it completely.

Financial aid, finding college savings

What else do I have to do with the FAFSA4Caster?

You’ll also need to enter the state where you plan to attend college, and the college aid you expect – or hope – to receive to fund your tuition. You can search for college tuitions prior to filling out the FAFSA4Caster.

One more thing – you’ll enter your EFC. Your EFC isn’t connected to what your family would monetarily contribute to your tuition. Rather, your EFC will be the amount of aid you’re eligible to receive based on family size, income, and other factors.

What if I want to compare college COAs?

Sure! You can compare schools by writing down or printing your FAFSA4Caster and then starting over and repeating all of the above steps. When you get to the state and college aid section, just enter the amount of the new school’s tuition to estimate how much aid you’ll need.

If you have any other questions about the FAFSA4Caster, just reach out to our team here and we’ll try our merry best to answer your questions.

Student excited to apply for FAFSA

Are there any potential mistakes I should avoid?

Yes! We’ve got you covered. Here are tips on how to avoid 10 common FAFSA mistakes.

1. Never leave a field blank on the FAFSA. It can make your processing time longer and could require you to go back and edit the form. Instead, fill in answers that don’t apply to you with a “0” (zero).

2. Make sure to report all sources of untaxed income to avoid legal issues. Untaxed income sources can include non-educational veteran benefits, child support, workers comp, disability, and more.

3. Enter the correct marital status. In order to file as married, you must be married before or on the date that the FAFSA is submitted. If you’re getting married in the near future, file as single for this year. If you’re not married, file as single.

4. Make sure to include all parents. If your parents are divorced, then you also need to include your step parents’ (if applicable) financial and demographic information on the FAFSA.

5. Include yourself in your household size. Even if you haven’t been living at your house recently, you should include yourself when determining your household size.

6. The early bird gets the worm. Don’t wait until the last minute to complete your FAFSA. Lots of colleges and universities give out financial aid awards on a first-come, first-served basis. Also, filing early ensures that you won’t miss the deadline.

7. Use the correct website. The ONLY website you should use to complete the FAFSA is fafsa.gov. Any other website is untrustworthy. Also, the FAFSA is always free, so stay away from any sites requesting money.

8. Get your FSA ID before beginning the FAFSA. The first step to determining how to apply for financial aid, you might need to wait up to three days to sign the FAFSA after applying for your FSA ID – meaning that it doesn’t hurt to get a head start!

9. Add all the colleges! Well, maybe not all of them, but definitely more than one or two. Even if you’re not sure about applying for a school, you should add it. You can add up to 10 schools and change your preferences at any time. Remember to reference your college list with your target, safety, and reach schools!

10. Just do it! The biggest mistake you can make is not filling out the FAFSA at all. It involves zero money, takes minimal time and effort, and it can save you thousands of dollars on college tuition.

Once you successfully determine how to apply for financial aid and submit the FAFSA, you’ll automatically be considered for all types of federal student aid – grants, loans, and work-study. You’ll also be considered for a variety of school-based aid depending on your college or university.

Alright. What if I’m ready to apply for FAFSA?

Then you’re in the right place! We’ve got a handy list of FAFSA deadlines right here, so check these out and apply ASAP. FAFSA submissions begin as soon as the new calendar rolls out on October 1.

What’s Going Merry got to do with this?

We provide helpful resources to high school and college students like you to guide you through the process before, during, and after college. We also have a handy scholarship finder tool (you can sign up for a free profile here). Think of us as a one-stop shop for your college scholarship needs!

Ready to find scholarships that are a match for you?