To do and when to do: Your FAFSA guide

College can be expensive, but you don’t have to go it alone. Financial aid options are available to students of all ages and backgrounds.

Not sure where to start? Begin by filling out your FAFSA.

“FAFSA provides more than $150 billion in funds each year.”

What is FAFSA?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is developed by Federal Student Aid, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education. Federal Student Aid helps students like you access more than $150 billion in funds each year, making it the largest student financial aid provider in America. More than 13 million students rely on Federal Student Aid annually for help with grants, loans and other funding opportunities.

FAFSA is the cornerstone of Federal Student Aid. Approximately 22 million FAFSA submissions are processed each and every year. Beyond the federal government, many states and colleges use FAFSA to provide their own aid packages.

How does FAFSA work
The FAFSA process is very straightforward. You fill out your application and wait to see what financial aid you may be eligible for. This depends on a few factors, including:

  • How much it costs to attend your school.
  • How much money your family is expected to contribute.

Cost of attendance is determined by calculating tuition, fees, books, room and board, transportation and other living expenses. Expected family contribution is based on your family’s income, size and financial responsibilities, among other things.

From there, your aid is split into need-based and non-need-based options. Need-based aid includes offerings like Federal Pell Grants, Federal Perkins Loans and work-study programs. Non-need-based aid includes Federal PLUS Loans and Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education Grants.

Need-based aid is calculated by subtracting expected family contribution from your cost of attendance. Non-need-based aid is dependent on how much financial aid you’ve already been awarded versus your cost of attendance.

How do I submit my FAFSA?
You can fill out a FAFSA online, or print out a copy and use a paper form. Keep in mind that submitting your application on the web means your school will receive the information it needs more quickly.

However, before you can fill out and sign your FAFSA online, you must apply for a Federal Student Aid ID. If you’re a dependent, one of your parents will also need to apply for an ID to sign your application. Visit this website to do so.

Next, make sure you have all the necessary information to answer FAFSA questions. Federal Student Aid recommended gathering the following:


  • Social Security number (and that of your parents if you’re a dependent).
  • Driver’s license number (if you have one).
  • Alien Registration number (if you’re not a U.S. citizen).
  • Tax information for you and your parents if applicable.
  • Information regarding untaxed income, savings and investments.

From there, it’s a simple matter of filling in the appropriate information. If you are a dependent, it can be very helpful to fill out your FAFSA with one or both of your parents there to answer questions. Also, don’t be afraid to seek out help on the Federal Student Aid website if you’re confused or unsure how to answer a question. In addition to helpful tips, you can access support staff via email or chat.

“Some aid may be awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis.”

FAFSA deadlines
Deadlines for submitting your FAFSA may differ based on where you live and the college you’re planning to attend. Use this tool to find all applicable dates.

In general, be aware that it’s best to submit your application as early as possible. Some deadlines for financial aid packages are earlier than others, and college, state and private aid may be awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. You can file your FAFSA as early as October 1. In terms of federal deadlines, online applications must be submitted by June 30.


FAFSA mistakes
Most FAFSA mistakes are simple input errors. If you become confused about a question, it can be all too easy to include inaccurate information. Luckily, after submitting your FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report that includes your answers to FAFSA questions. If you spot any errors, you can update your FAFSA to correct them.

The biggest mistake to avoid, however, is not filling out your FAFSA at all. Many people mistakenly believe they won’t be eligible for any aid, and end up leaving free money on the table. A recent study found that high school graduates lost out on $2.7 billion in free federal grant money in one year due to incomplete or unsubmitted FAFSAs.

Make sure you fill out your FAFSA to claim what’s yours.

Visit to find more information about paying for college.

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