Figuring out how to apply for financial aid can be stressful and overwhelming, but it’s really not so bad once you have all the info. The FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the form that the government, along with several colleges and universities, use to determine how much financial aid college students should receive each year.

But what is the FAFSA and how does it work? In general, federal student aid (i.e. financial aid from the government) is determined based on four factors: Expected Family Contribution (EFC), year in school, enrollment status (i.e. part-time or full-time), and the 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 and must be completed again each year. We recommend filling it out as early as possible since some awards are given out on a first-come, first-served basis.

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 essentially 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 school that year. Your EFC is determined by a set formula established by law. For more information, check out the official EFC Formula Guide.

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

how to apply for financial aid

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 options to help students avoid taking out private loans. The government currently offers five loan types: 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.

How Schools Use the FAFSA

When schools use the FAFSA to determine student financial aid packages, they often focus most of their attention on COA and EFC. Each school uses its own formulas, standards, and methods for calculating financial aid based on these numbers. You’ll likely receive a different financial aid offer from each school since each institution has a different level of funding available to assist students.

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.

how to apply for financial aid

How to Apply for Financial Aid: Step-by-Step

What You’ll Need

To complete the FAFSA, you should have the following documents ready:

-Social Security Number (SSN) for US citizens or Alien Registration Number (ARN) for non-US citizens

-Your/Your parents’ income tax return

-Records of untaxed income (if applicable)

-Investment records (if applicable)

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 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 need their own FSA ID.

Step 2: Begin Your FAFSA at fafsa.gov

Once you have your FSA ID, head over to fafsa.gov to complete the form. When it comes to figuring out how to apply for financial aid, getting the website and dates correct is important. The form becomes available each year on October 1st and closes on June 30th. You should complete the FAFSA as early as possible, since many university-based awards are given out on a first-come, first-served basis.

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 back and forth.

how to apply for financial aid

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 the information for the first time; it should autofill the following years.

Step 4: Decide Who Gets It

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 weren’t accepted, 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.

how to apply for financial aid

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’ basic info and can be filled out by either you or your parent.

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 aren’t automatically completed.

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 do it and remember, dependent students also need their parents to sign the form! 

Finally, here are 10 common FAFSA mistakes to avoid…

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.

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 demographics 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.

how to apply for financial aid

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 any time.

10. Just do it! The biggest mistake you can make is not filling out the FAFSA at all. It involves zero money and little time and 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.

how to apply for financial aid

What are your best tips on how to apply for financial aid? Let us know below!