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The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid): How to Do It, 1-2-3

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Back to School with the FAFSA

Looking for financial aid to pay for college? The U.S. Department of Education provides more than $80 billion a year in grants, loans, and work-study assistance for college and career school students. Most students are eligible for federal financial aid, but you have to apply for it. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid—the FAFSA—is the first step.

The Early Bird Gets the Federal Funding

You must submit a FAFSA to get federal financial aid, and the FAFSA is also used to determine your eligibility for grants or scholarships from your state or school. You can submit a FAFSA as late as June, but many state and individual school financial aid deadlines are in February and March. You may need to file your FAFSA before you file your income tax return, but financial aid experts all say the same thing: the sooner you apply, the better.

FAFSA Facts

  • The FAFSA's purpose is to determine how much money you and your family can contribute to paying for your college education. This is called your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The school(s) you apply to will use your EFC together with their Cost of Attendance to determine how much financial aid they can offer you.
  • You have to fill out a FAFSA every year you are in school. However...
  • Once you get a FAFSA P.I.N (Personal Identification Number), it can be re-used every year that you apply for federal financial aid.
  • You don't need to be accepted at a school before you can submit your FAFSA. You only need to list which schools you have applied to. Not sure which school you might attend? Visit StudentAdvisor's College Match to narrow down your choices.
  • Being a "Dependent" for federal financial aid is NOT the same thing as being a dependent on tax returns. Even if you no longer live with your parents, or are not claimed by them as a dependent on their taxes, you may still be defined as a dependent according to FAFSA criteria. See How to Know If You're an Independent or Dependent Student on the FAFSA for more information.
  • FAFSA is available online and on paper. Online is faster and more efficient.
  • Once you save your FAFSA online, you have 45 days to add to it and make final changes to it.
  • If you qualify for a Pell Grant, you'll get it automatically. The FAFSA's questions will help you determine if you qualify for other federal grants.

FAFSA Timing

Each FAFSA application period runs from January 1st of any given year to June 30th of the following year. This 18-month period allows for financial aid coverage of summer school programs at both ends of the traditional September–to–May school year.

For example, as of January 2010:

  • If the education program you want to enroll in begins between January 1st and June 30th, 2010 (spring 2010 semester and early summer), fill out the 2009-2010 FAFSA.
  • If the education program you want to enroll in begins AFTER June 30th, 2010, fill out the 2010-2011 FAFSA.

Either way, file your FAFSA online— it's much faster.

FAFSA Requirements

  • A P.I.N. from the U.S. Department of Education if you plan to submit your FAFSA online. Your parent(s) must have a PIN too if the FAFSA defines you as a dependent student
  • Your Social Security number—and the SSN of the parent for whom you are a dependent
  • Several tax and financial documents (listed below)
  • If you are not a U.S. citizen, your alien registration number
  • Federal school code for each school you want to apply to (You can get school codes through the online FAFSA or you look them up on the federal student aid website.)

FAFSA 1-2-3

Step 1: Get a PIN or download a paper application

FAFSA Online

  • Apply for your PIN online at www.pin.ed.gov.
  • Your PIN allows you to "sign" your online FAFSA, and to access your FAFSA file every year that you apply.
  • Apply for your PIN ASAP because processing your request will take at least 2-5 business days. Your parent(s) will also need a PIN if the FAFSA defines you as a dependent student.
  • Providing an email address will speed up the PIN process.
  • Print out the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet. Use the worksheets at the end of the document to help you calculate the data you'll need for the FAFSA.

FAFSA by Mail

  • Download a PDF copy from either the federal student aid or the FAFSA web sites, or call the Federal Student Aid Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID              1-800-4-FED-AID      
  • Refer to the federal student aid website to find the federal school code for each school you plan to apply to.

Step 2: Collect the documents you'll need and fill out the practice worksheet

You'll need these personal identification and financial information documents for the FAFSA:

  • Your Social Security Number (can be found on Social Security card)
  • Your driver's license if you have one
  • Your most recent bank statements
  • Your W-2 Forms and other records of money earned
  • Your Federal Income Tax Return (and your spouse's, if you are married): IRS Form 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, foreign tax return, or tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia or Palau
  • Your parents' Federal Income Tax Return, if you meet the FAFSA criteria for a dependent student
  • Your untaxed income records - Social Security, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, welfare, or veterans' benefits records
  • Your most recent business and investment mortgage information, business and farm records, stock, bond, and other investment records

Tips

  • If the FAFSA defines you as a dependent but you have no contact with either parent, see How to Know If You're an Independent or Dependent Student on the FAFSA.
  • You can submit your FAFSA online before filing your tax return. Estimate your tax information on your FAFSA, then submit a FAFSA follow-up with any corrections after you've completed your tax return. (You have 45 days.)

Step 3: Reserve some time to fill out the application

Set aside a couple of hours to fill out the FAFSA. The Department of Education recommends submitting the FAFSA online for several reasons:

  • Online instructions are provided for each question and live online help with a customer service representative is available if you get really stuck.
  • FAFSA on the Web is designed to find mistakes and prompt you to correct them.
  • You can fill out all the questions at once or save your application for later changes and updates. This is a great feature for submitting all the information you have other than your tax return. You have 45 days from when you first submit information, or until the application deadline passes.
  • Once you click "Submit My FAFSA Now" your information is immediately sent to the Department of Education.
  • Your application is processed more quickly.

Common FAFSA Mistakes: Don't Make Them!

According to the American Student Assistance website, the biggest FAFSA problems and longest delays in finding out how much aid you will get come from mistakes in the application and essential information being left out of the application. Be sure to:

  • Calculate earned income correctly. Per Mark Kantrowitz, of FinAid.org, the FAFSA instructions regarding income earned from work ("earned income") are incorrect. The FAFSA instructions usually result in a number that is too low, which in turn leads to an Expected Family Contribution figure that is too high. Mr. Kantrowitz advises, "To correctly calculate income earned from work, add Box 5 of your W-2 statements to line A.4 or B.6 of Schedule SE."
  • Include untaxed income. Listing untaxed income is one FAFSA requirement commonly overlooked by students and their parents. Use the worksheets at the end of the FAFSA document to figure out how to report untaxed income.
  • Sign your application! Your FAFSA is not valid until you have signed it - and your parents, if you are a dependent. Online, your PIN is your signature and your parents' PIN is their signature. This is the most important reason for requesting your FAFSA PINs as soon as possible. If you mail in a paper FAFSA without a signature, the Education Department will mail it back to you — nice of them to do, but it won't help you much if you're already living at school when it's returned to your home.

FAFSA Application: Do It Today

The FAFSA may seem like a lot of work, but if you familiarize yourself with the application and collect all the information you'll need ahead of time, the process may go much faster than you think. And the federal financial aid you may be awarded if you submit your FAFSA early and correctly could give your goals and dreams an exciting fresh start this year. Don't delay!


Sources:
1) Student Aid on the Web (studentaid.ed.gov) and FAFSA (www.fafsa.ed.gov). Tip: Download the latest version of "Funding Education Beyond High School, Guide to Federal Student Aid"

2) American Student Assistance (www.amsa.com)
Research by Carlos Soto for CourseAdvisor