The U.S. Department of Education awards more than $150 billion each year in federal aid for higher education – and, surprisingly, more than $2 billion of this financial aid goes unclaimed. Your opportunity for some of that money begins by filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The application process is relatively simple, and there is no reason not to do it. By submitting a FAFSA, you make yourself available for federal grants, work-study funds, low-interest federal student loans and possibly state or school scholarships.
In addition, many states and colleges use the FAFSA in awarding student financial aid. “If you don’t complete the FAFSA, you could lose out on thousands of dollars to help you pay for college,” the department’s blog reads, adding, “And contrary to popular belief, there is no income cut-off when it comes to federal student aid.”
To help you better understand the FAFSA process, we broke it down into three parts: things to do before, during and after the application process.
- Familiarize yourself with the FAFSA calendar. FAFSA begins accepting applications on October 1 prior to the school year for which you are applying, using income and tax information from the year prior to the October 1 date. The application season stays open for 21 months. For example, FAFSA began accepting applications on October 1, 2016 for the 2017-18 school year, using income and tax information reported from 2015. FAFSA applications for the 2017-18 school year will be accepted through June 30, 2018.
- Decide how you will apply. There are three ways to submit your application:
- Online. This is the easiest, fastest, and most recommended way to apply. Online applications are typically processed in 3 to 5 days. This method allows you to include up to 10 educational institutions, and you can import your tax information using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. This blog assumes you are applying online.
- PDF FAFSA. PDFs must be mailed for processing, so factor in additional mailing time.
- Paper FAFSA. You can request a paper FAFSA by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID or 334-523-2691. If you are hearing impaired, contact the TTY line at 1-800-730-8913. PDF and paper FAFSAs limit the number of schools you can list for consideration to four, and these applications may take one to two weeks to process.
- Create your FSA ID. This includes a username and password that you will use to log in to the FAFSA website. If you are a dependent student, your parent(s) will also create a separate FSA ID from yours. These IDs act as signatures for your FAFSA application and must each be associated with separate email addresses.
- Gather your paperwork. This includes:
- Social Security number.
- Driver’s license number, if you have a license.
- Income tax returns and W-2 forms for you (and your parents, if applicable).
- Records of untaxed income for you (and your parents, if applicable). This includes things like interest income and child support.
- Records of monetary assets for you (and your parents, if applicable). This includes statements from checking accounts, savings accounts and investments.
- List of school(s) you are interested in attending. This includes any institution you are considering, whether you have applied or have been accepted. “You can always remove schools [from the FAFSA] later if you decide not to apply,” reports the Department of Education, “But if you wait to add a school, you could miss out on first come, first served financial aid.”
Filling Out the Application
- Make sure you are on the official FAFSA website, www.fafsa.gov. This is where you will find the free application. If you are being asked to enter any type of payment information, you are not on the correct website.
- Apply early. Because some financial aid is distributed early, it is recommended to be prompt with your FAFSA application. Financial aid application deadlines vary among states and schools. You can find state deadlines here. Check individual school websites for additional deadline information.
- Use your FSA ID when starting the FAFSA. By entering your FSA ID at the start of the application process, much of your information will automatically populate into the application. This reduces the chance of an error due to FSA ID information that doesn’t match your FAFSA information. You can also leave an unfinished application and return to it at a later time (up to 45 days) by logging in with your FSA ID.
- Remember that the student is the applicant. When the FAFSA refers to “you,” it assumes that “you” is the student and not the parent.
- Only report tax information from the requested year. If you have had a substantial change in your financial situation from the year of your tax records, the Department of Education recommends that you contact the schools to which you are applying. “They have the ability to assess your situation and make adjustments to your FAFSA,” the department reports.
- Add up to 10 schools that you are considering. Keep yourself in the running for possible financial aid from schools that interest you. You are not obligated to apply to all of the schools you list, and admissions departments cannot see other schools that you’ve listed. You can also return to the FAFSA to remove schools and make room for new schools. Be aware that some states require you to list schools in a particular order. You can find out if your state is one of them here. For instructions on listing more than 10 schools, click here.
- Double and triple check your information before submitting the application. Especially look at names, social security numbers and spellings. Make sure that you (and your parents, if applicable) sign the document.
Finishing the Process
- Check colleges for additional requirements. To be considered for institution-awarded financial aid, some schools may require applications in addition to the FAFSA. Check the financial aid information on websites of schools where you apply.
- Review your Student Aid Report (SAR). Once you submit your FAFSA, you will receive a summary of your application called a Student Aid Report. This will include your Expected Family Contribution, an estimate of the amount you can afford to pay for your education. This information is also sent to the colleges where you are applying and is used by college financial aid offices to figure out how to assist you in funding your education. The SAR usually arrives within a few weeks after you submit your FAFSA. Review this report for accuracy. If you find errors, take immediate steps to correct your FAFSA.
- Look for notification of financial aid. Generally speaking, students who returned the FAFSA in a timely fashion can expect to receive notice of possible financial aid in the spring prior to the school year. This may include both need-based and non-need-based financial aid, such as eligible grants, loans, work-study opportunities and scholarships. Read the fine print to understand whether an offer is firm, estimated, and if there are any stipulations surrounding the funding.
- Consider whether you want to appeal the financial aid offer. If your financial situation substantially changed from the time you submitted your FAFSA, you may want to contact your college financial aid office to discuss any available options.
Finally, get ready to do this again. You are expected to submit an updated FAFSA for each school year. Now that you know how long the process takes, mark reminders on your calendar for next year. Keep in mind that you can choose to “renew” your FAFSA when you apply next year to carry over some of your standard information. You will still need to add updated income and tax numbers.
For more information about the FAFSA, visit fafsa.gov and your high school guidance office. For assistance in completing the FAFSA, visit formyourfuture.org. Students in Massachusetts, and their families, can also register for various FAFSA Day programs around the state. These events are run by volunteers with the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and are free for participants. For information, visit masfaa.org.