Focus on the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)

Focus on the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly referred to as FAFSA, is a form that every American college student should fill out in advance of every year that they plan to attend college. The FAFSA is used to determine your eligibility for student loans or need-based grants, and further, to determine which types of loans or grants you might be eligible to receive. The form will use personal and financial information about students and their families in order to determine eligibility based on financial standing and/or financial need.

Regardless of your financial standing, you should fill out the FAFSA. This is an important part of your college application process. Every student attending an accredited college, university, or professional college should fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You’ll need to complete this form annually to determine your financial aid eligibility for each year that you attend college, grad school, or professional school. As you proceed, be aware that only students attending schools which are regionally or nationally accredited by U.S. Department of Education-recognized accreditors will be eligible for federal financial aid. This applies to both federal student loans and federal need-based grant programs.

Who is eligible for federal financial aid?

As noted above, first and foremost, a student must plan to attend a college or university that is regionally or nationally accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accreditor. To learn more about accreditation, take a look at our complete Guide to Accreditation in Higher Education.

If you already know your school’s accreditation status, continue on to the Basic Eligibility Requirements for federal financial aid, as provided by the Department of Education’s Student Aid Office:

  • Demonstrated financial need
  • U.S. citizenship (with the exception of certain eligible non-citizens)
  • Valid Social Security #
  • Registration with Selective Service (for male applicants)
  • Enrollment or acceptance as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Satisfactory academic progress in college or career school
  • Certified statement denoting the student is not in default on a federal student loan, and that the pending loan will be used for the purposes of education only
  • Evidence of high-school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate

*Additional requirements may apply to non-U.S citizens, students with criminal convictions, and students with intellectual disabilities.

Community Based Organizations (CBOs) are a valuable part of the college admissions landscape, especially for students from low-income families and at-risk communities. If you are interested in finding out more about this underutilized resource, check out How CBOs can Help you Get Into a Top Online College.

How do I start my FAFSA application?

Some advanced preparation can simplify and speed up the process of filling out your FAFSA. Before getting to the actual form, start by locating everything you’ll need to get it done. Then, follow these steps to begin the process:

Create FSA ID- Sign on to the Student Aid website and create your FSA ID. You can do this even if you aren’t ready to begin filling out your form. Setting up your ID in advance should give you time to manage any unforeseen challenges accessing your application, and it can give you a clear idea of the materials and information you’ll need to gather in order to complete your FAFSA.

Gather Documents- Your FAFSA will typically require you to locate a number of documents. You will use these documents as references, but you may be asked to send copies of certain materials. Never send original documents such as a Social Security card or Driver’s License. You will likely require the following for reference or duplication:

  • Social Security #
  • Parents’ Social Security #s (if you are a dependent)
  • Driver’s License # (if applicable)
  • Alien Registration # (for non-U.S. citizens)
  • Federal Tax information/tax returns for you (and parents if dependent; or spouse if married)
  • Records of untaxed income including child support, interest, etc.
  • Information on assets including account balances, investments, and non-residential real estate

For a more detailed look at everything you’ll need, consult this FAFSA checklist.

Start Form- The FAFSA for each upcoming school year becomes available for completion on October 1st. Do your best to get started on the application process as early as possible. There are four ways to fill out your FAFSA:

  • Apply online at
  • Apply using the myStudentAid mobile app
  • Complete, print, and mail a FAFSA PDF
  • Or, to receive a print form in the mail, call at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 334-523-2691 (TTY for the deaf or hard of hearing 1-800-730-8913); then complete and mail form.

When should I fill out my FAFSA?

Once you get started with your application process, you may want to mark important deadlines in your calendar or planner.

Federal Deadlines for the 2019-20 Academic Year

Online FAFSA Form submission: by 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT), June 30, 2020.

FAFSA corrections or updates: by 11:59 p.m. (CT), September 12, 2020.

Federal Deadlines for the 2020-21 Academic Year

Online FAFSA Form submission: by 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT), June 30, 2021.

FAFSA corrections or updates: by 11:59 p.m. (CT), September 11, 2021.

College-Specific Deadlines

Every college has its own deadline for FAFSA submissions. Be sure you have all the deadlines for your prospective schools marked in your calendar. Any earlier deadlines from your prospective colleges will supersede a later federal FAFSA deadline!

State-Specific Deadlines

Every state has its own submission deadlines as well. You must adhere to these deadlines in order to be eligible for financial aid from the states in which your prospective schools are located. Visit the Student Aid website to find out the 2020-21 deadlines for states relevant to your college search.

How do I fill out my FAFSA step by step?

Enter Basic Info- If this is your first time filling out the FAFSA, you will need to provide all requested identifying information. If you have already filled out a FAFSA in a prior year, you can log in using your FSA ID and select the FAFSA RENEWAL option. Some of your information will be prefilled for you.

Select Schools- You must designate at least one accredited college or university to receive your FAFSA information. This information will allow your intended school(s) to make determinations about the financial aid package to which you are entitled. If you are using the website or mobile app to complete your application, you may send your FAFSA to as many as 10 schools. If you’re using the PDF or print version, you can choose up to four schools, but can add more schools at a later point in the process. Once you’ve completed your FAFSA, your information will be shared with the colleges on your list. The financial aid office from each of these schools will use this information to make a determination about the state- and school-based aid for which you might be eligible. Use the Federal School Code Search to find the schools on your list.

Determine Your Dependency Status- You’ll answer a series of questions to determine whether you are of independent status, or are a dependent of your parents. If you qualify as the latter, you’ll need to provide both your financial information and that of your parents.

Enter Your Financial Information- You will need to provide information about your recent tax history, earnings, and assets. Depending on your filing status, you will also need to provide the same information about your parents or spouse.

Sign and Submit- You may sign and submit your FAFSA using your FSA ID or by printing and mailing your completed application. Forms submitted online are processed much faster than those completed and submitted by mail. You should see a confirmation page following online submission, and you should also receive an emailed confirmation outlining the next steps.

How do I know how much I get from FAFSA?

Of course, the all-important question is, how much are you eligible for, and in what form - student loans or need-based grants?

The answer to this question is found in your Student Aid Report. The next step in your process will include a full review of this report. You should receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) within three weeks of completing your FAFSA. Your SAR will not tell you how big your financial aid package is, nor precisely what type of loan or grant you’ll receive. The SAR is merely a summary of the data you’ve submitted on your FAFSA, as well as an indication of your eligibility for need-based grants.

Your eligibility for certain need-based loans or grants will depend on your family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The Expected Family Contribution is a figure which is derived from the sum of a percentage of your family’s net income and a percentage of your family’s net assets.

Your Student Aid Report will indicate your EFC. Review and confirm that all of your personal information is correct. If anything is incorrect on the SAR, you will need to provide corrections through the FAFSA application website.

Once you’ve been accepted to a college or school on your FAFSA list, you will receive an award letter directly from that school indicating what kind of aid you’re eligible for, and in what amount. The timing and form of your award letter (electronic or mailed) will vary depending upon the school to which you’ve applied and the timing of your application.

How can I increase my chances of getting federal aid?

To reiterate an important point, you should fill out your FAFSA every year that you plan to attend an accredited college or professional school. It should go without saying that completing this form every year is the first step toward increasing your odds of receiving federal aid and maximizing the amount awarded.

But what else can you do to improve your chances of getting the loan or grant amount you deserve? The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) offers a few tips for ensuring you take full advantage of your eligibility:

  • Get it done early- Though FAFSA has annual deadlines, many colleges and states have their own deadlines for awarding financial aid each year. The sooner you get your FAFSA done, the better your chances of receiving aid offers from all the colleges on your list.
  • Gather your materials- Be sure that you have all materials prepared in advance. This should make completing the FAFSA a breeze. Consult this FAFSA checklist and make sure you have everything you need close at hand.
  • Apply online if you can- The online or mobile applications reduce the chances for error, and these applications are generally processed much faster than print and mail options.
  • Use IRS Data Retrieval Tool- The FAFSA’s IRS Data Retrieval Tool allows you to give the FAFSA access to your tax information. By automatically populating your form with this information, the tool reduces the chances of error and takes some of the hassle out of the application process.
  • Reach out for Help- If you’re confused or have questions, you can reach out directly to support agents at the Office of Student Aid. You can visit the Help Page or call for assistance at 1-800-4‐FED AID (1-800-433-3243).

What are some common FAFSA mistakes to avoid?

Once again, the biggest mistake you can make is not filling out your FAFSA at all. Whether you believe you’re eligible or not, you should complete your FAFSA. Even students without financial need may be eligible for student loans. Moreover, colleges and universities may use your FAFSA to make an array of determinations about your eligibility for school-specific grants and scholarships. Don’t deprive yourself of hidden opportunities by failing to fill out your forms.

Beyond that, be aware that mistakes can delay your receipt of critical information and may even prevent you from getting the loan or grant to which you are entitled. The NASFAA highlights a few common errors that you’ll want to look out for:

  • Blank fields- Be sure that you fill out all fields to avoid machine error. If you have no answer for a question, it’s better to insert “not applicable” or “N/A” rather than leave it blank.
  • Personal Data Errors- Double-check key identifying numbers like your driver’s license ID# or your Social Security #. A mistake here can lead to all sorts of bureaucratic headaches.
  • Nicknames- Use your full legal name. No abbreviations or nicknames.
  • Incorrect Financial Information- Double check financial data and figures. If possible, use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool provided through the FAFSA portal to reduce the chances of error.
  • Inaccurate Marital/Residential/Parental Status- Be sure that all information is accurate regarding the marital and residential status of your legal guardians. If you are a parent, don’t neglect to include this information either, as it will improve your chances of aid eligibility.
  • If your family is expecting a child by the time you’ll be attending school, be sure that you include this information, as it will factor into your aid determination.

  • Failure to register with Selective Service- All male applicants between the ages of 18 and 26 must be registered with Selective Service in order to be eligible for federal aid.


For more on applying for financial aid, return to our Guide to Financial Aid for Higher Education. You might also be interested in our Guide to Applying for College.

Get additional tips on finding, applying to, and getting into the best school for you with a look at our College Admissions homepage.

Or find study tips, learning tools, tips for campus life and much more with a look at our Student Resources Headquarters.

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