Everything You Need to Know About FAFSA

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The FAFSA application leads to more than $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds to students each year.


It’s no secret that college is expensive. So the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the largest source of college financial aid, was created to help students and families afford higher education. In 2014, First Lady Michelle Obama offered this advice to college applicants concerning financial aid: “Fill out those forms. Don’t leave that money on the table.”

Explore all of the aspects of FAFSA in the tabbed chart

There’s really no reason NOT to fill out the FAFSA. According to FAFSA’s website, a number of students believe these misconceptions about the FAFSA, including:

  • Parents make too much money.
  • Students’ grades aren’t good enough to get financial aid.
  • FAFSA is difficult to fill out.
  • Students are too old to qualify for financial aid.

However, anyone and everyone who’s continuing their education can fill out the FAFSA.

There are three ways to fill out the FAFSA:

  1. Online at fafsa.gov
  2. Downloading the PDF form or ordering it.
  3. Filing with your college or career school.

Typically, it takes about 30 minutes to fill out the FAFSA form, and you will need to fill it out each year that you’re in school.

If you want to gauge how much money you might get through the FAFSA, you can use the FAFSA4caster on the FAFSA website. This is a tool for anyone who is not yet ready to file a FAFSA, typically middle school students through high school seniors.

Here’s the formula of how schools will figure out how much aid you’ll receive:

Cost of attendance − expected family contribution (EFC) = financial need (also incorporates other factors here)

  • A Federal Student Aid Pin, a four-digit number used in combo with your Social Security number, name, and date of birth to identify your right to access your personal info
  • Your Social Security number
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers if you’re a dependent student
  • Your Driver’s license number (if you have one)
  • Your Alien Registration Number (if you aren’t a U.S. citizen)
  • Annual income information for you and your parents if you’re a dependent student (or for you and your spouse if you’re married) This can come from federal tax statements or tax returns (W2s or 1040), but don’t wait until your taxes are done to file your FAFSA—you might miss a state deadline! Estimates are fine as long as they’re close, and you can correct your estimates later.
  • Records of untaxed income (e.g., child support received, interest income, veterans non-education benefits)
  • Information on cash, savings and checking accounts, investments, stocks and bonds, real estate (not including the home in which you live) either for you or your parents if you’re a dependent

What’s the difference between a dependent and independent student?

FAFSA Decision Tree_2.13.14 Final

FAFSA Deadlines

The FAFSA becomes available every January. However, there are different deadlines for different programs.

Federal aidJanuary 1 to June 30 (varies)
State aidVaries by state
College aidCheck your school’s website/financial aid office. Deadlines are usually in February or March.
Other aidSome programs require filing the FAFSA. Certain private scholarships require Federal Pell Grant eligibility, and you can’t find out whether you’re eligible without filling out FAFSA.

Fill out the FAFSA ASAPBest rule of thumb: Fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible after it gets released in January. This will help you be eligible for more, especially since many awards are allotted on a first-come, first-serve basis.

When completing your FAFSA, you must list at least one college to receive your financial aid information. This is how schools determine how much aid you’ll receive. If you’re completing the FAFSA online, you can list 10 schools; if you’re doing it on paper, you can only list four, so if you have a lot of schools in mind, it’s better to apply online.

FAFSA Status

After you officially apply, you’re not done just yet. Applying just means that your information is being shared with the colleges or career schools you listed on the application. However, because many states award financial funds to students based on FAFSA information, your info is also passed on to higher education agencies of the state where you live and the states where your potential schools are located.

You can check your status by either logging in to fafsa.gov or contacting the Federal Student Aid Information Center.

FAFSA Response

After your FAFSA is processed (which could take several days to a few weeks), you’ll hear from the following:


  1. Federal Student Aid at the U.S. Department of Education will send you a Student Aid Report (SAR) for you to look over to make sure it is correct. If it isn’t correct, you can correct your FAFSA errors by logging into your FAFSA account and clicking “Make FAFSA Corrections.”
    • If the application is complete, the SAR will contain an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and a four-digit Data Release Number (DRN) (which is needed to allow your school to change certain info on your FAFSA).
  2. Schools you were accepted to and listed on your FAFSA will send you electronic or paper offers or award letters with how much money you’re eligible for.

Getting your FAFSA money

The financial aid office at the college or career school you decide to attend will let you know how and exactly when your aid will be applied, in addition to whether you need to fill out additional paperwork. Be sure to stay in touch with them.

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    • Megan McLachlan

      Probably as soon as the new FAFSA is available your senior year of high school. So January 2015.

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