Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA, is a rite of passage for prospective or current college students, whether they’re attending a trade school near home or heading across the country to work on a bachelor’s degree.
The newest FAFSA form is available Oct. 1. Even though the deadline to apply is months away — and the exact deadlines vary by state — it’s best to turn the form in as quickly as possible. Early applicants have better chances for more money.
It’s become easier to fill out in recent years — mostly by allowing you to use older tax data instead of making estimations and corrections — but filling out a financial aid application still isn’t anyone’s idea of a fun evening at home.
But that’s why we’re here. Behold: Your ultimate guide to filling out the FAFSA form. We’ll cover what exactly the FAFSA is, why every student and student-to-be seeking higher education should consider filling it out, how to complete the (dreaded) application itself and tips to get through the paperwork quickly.
Table of Contents
In this guide to filling out the FAFSA form, we’ll cover:
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What Is the FAFSA and Why Should I Fill it Out?
The FAFSA (again, short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is a form administered by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for Federal Student Aid. Current and prospective college students can submit the FAFSA form to determine what federal aid — in the form of grants, scholarships, loans or work-study jobs — is available to them each academic year.
Colleges and universities frequently use data from the FAFSA to determine eligibility for their own scholarships and student assistance programs, too. What that effectively means is that the FAFSA isn’t only for need-based aid or federal aid, so you should complete the FAFSA annually — even if you think your parents make too much money.
New FAFSA Rules: FAFSA Simplification Act
Due to new legislation known as the FAFSA Simplification Act, which passed in December 2020, some FAFSA rules are changing. The law aims to drastically simplify the FAFSA form, cutting it from more than 100 questions to 36 — eventually. The timing of the new law was too late, according to the Education Department, and the October 2021 form is largely unchanged from the previous year. Subsequent versions of the form will look much different.
Two big changes that are already in effect: Previous drug convictions are no longer a barrier to receiving federal student aid. And male applicants no longer need to register for the Selective Service System (SSS) aka the draft or military conscription to be considered.
Questions regarding drug convictions and the selective service still appear on the latest version of the FAFSA, but your answers will not be used against you.
Key FAFSA Deadlines and Dates
The newest FAFSA form is available starting Oct. 1, 2021.
Instead of hurrying to do your taxes in January 2022 to be able to submit an accurate FAFSA for the next academic year, the format allows you to use last year’s tax data. So, if you’re filling out your FAFSA this fall, you’ll use your 2021 tax return — or your parents’ tax return if you’re a dependent student and/or didn’t have to file taxes in 2021.
Since the FAFSA uses older data, you’ll be able to automatically import the required tax information using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Thanks to the new FAFSA simplification law, you won’t need to use this tool in subsequent years because the agency will automatically pull your tax data for you. However, for this year, you’ll still need to use the IRS tool to import your tax data.
One caveat or limitation to using the IRS Data Retrieval tool: Since you’re using older tax data to fill out your financial aid form, there’s a chance your family’s financial situation could have changed since you filed your 2021 taxes. If that’s the case, contact your school’s financial aid office to discuss your options. You’ll still need to fill out your FAFSA form using the data you already reported.
The deadline for submitting a FAFSA is still June 30 for the previous academic year beginning July 1. If you plan to take a class next summer instead of waiting for the fall semester, be sure to keep this FAFSA deadline in mind.
Important FAFSA Dates
|Upcoming Academic Year||FAFSA Open Date||Federal FAFSA Deadline||State FAFSA Deadline|
|2022 – 2023||Oct. 1, 2021||June 30, 2023||Varies by state*|
* State deadlines for FAFSA
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Preparing to Fill Out the FAFSA Form
Getting your financial aid squared away might seem like a lot, but we’ve broken down each step so it’s as manageable and non-threatening as possible. Here’s what you should familiarize yourself with before filling out the FAFSA form.
1. Find Your State’s Deadline
When is the FAFSA due? While the federal deadline for submitting your FAFSA is June 30, states have their own aid deadlines. For example, Florida’s deadline for FAFSA processing is May 15 — a month and a half earlier than you might have expected.
Check the deadline for your state of residence and note any special rules for award programs.
Not all states have separate deadlines, but many administer funds on a first-come-first-served basis. So earlier is always better.
2. Gather Your Documents and Materials
This is not a time to leisurely go through the process of applying for aid. You need to know all the FAFSA requirements and have them at hand before you start. For example, let’s say you wait till actually applying to gather your documents. If you idle too long on the FAFSA webpage while you’re trying to hunt down your parent’s Social Security number, you may get booted out for inactivity and have to reload and start again.
Gather your materials before you log in to avoid that stress. Bits of info you may want to have handy include:
- Social Security numbers for you, your parents or your spouse. (Note: If you’re a dependent student and your parents do not have Social Security numbers, they can’t fill out their portion online. They will need to use physical forms.)
- If you’re not a U.S. citizen, then use your Alien Registration Number.
- A copy of last year’s tax return, in case you can’t import your tax data using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.
- The amount of income you earned last year, regardless of whether you paid taxes or not.
- Your driver’s license number, if you have one.
- The amount of money you received outside of work or bills paid on your behalf in the previous year. (For instance, if your parents don’t claim you as a dependent but they still send you some cash to put toward your rent, you would want to know that yearly amount for your FAFSA. If anyone contributed to a 529 savings plan for you in the previous tax year, be prepared to have that amount available, too.)
- The names of the schools you’ve applied to or plan to apply to. It’s easy to search for these schools within the online system, but you’ll want to have a shortlist of names ready. You can list up to 10 schools; if you’re applying to more than 10, you’ll have to add the extras after you submit your initial form.
- Paperwork related to unemployment benefits if you or your family received them during the pandemic. Proof that the pandemic affected you or your family’s income can help you receive more financial aid.
- Your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID and password if you’re a returning FAFSA applicant. Otherwise, we’ll cover below how to create an FSA ID for first timers.
3. Brace Yourself With the Federal Student Aid Estimator Tool
Use the Federal Student Aid Estimator tool to get an early estimate of your federal financial aid. The calculator doesn’t reflect your actual aid eligibility — you have to go through the full process for that — but you’ll answer the same types of questions as you will when you sit down to fill out the real deal.
If you or your parents are unfamiliar with the FAFSA, this is an easy way to get your feet wet without being afraid you’re going to mess something up. The process takes about 10 minutes to complete, and you’ll need your basic tax and income information to get the best estimation.
4. First Timers, Do the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet
If this is your first FAFSA rodeo, the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet gives you a preview of the questions you’ll need to answer when you fill out the online form.
We recommend printing it out and doing the practice form in pencil. Then, have it handy when you do your online application, as the “notes” sections may help you navigate any tricky questions.
Completing — or at least previewing — this form can help you determine exactly what tax documentation you’ll be expected to provide for yourself, your spouse or your parents.
5. Sign Up for Your FSA ID
If this is your first time filling out a FAFSA form, you’ll need to sign up for a Federal Student AID (FSA) ID, which helps you access and submit your financial aid information online.
Back in the day, circa 2015, you used your Social Security number and a PIN to sign in. Now you create a username and password. An FSA ID allows you to log into the federal student aid website, apply for aid, save your progress — and it allows you to sign your FAFSA form electronically.
To create a FSA ID, you’ll need your Social Security number, a mobile phone and an email address.
If your parents’ or spouse’s information will be included on your FAFSA, they’ll need to individually sign up for a FSA ID too. The Social Security Administration verifies the information provided for FSA IDs. If your parents or spouse do not have an SSN, they can’t create an FSA ID or electronically sign documents. Instead, they’ll need to print out the relevant sections of the FAFSA document and physically sign them. In the portions of the form that request an SSN, they should use the number 000-00-0000.
Don’t toss your FSA ID login info aside once you complete the process this year; you’ll log in next year to autofill your previous year’s data and prompt you through the renewal process.
6. Set Expectations About Your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC)
Later on, after you submit your application, you’ll be able to review something called your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). Basically, your FAFSA data is run through an algorithm, and it spits out an estimated amount of money it thinks your family can afford to pay for college.
Knowing what the EFC is upfront can save you and your family a major headache.
Your EFC number will probably be some astronomical amount that makes you sweat. But don’t panic. That’s probably not the amount you’ll actually have to pay. It is purely an estimation — and the EFC is long known to confuse applicants. The good news is this is one of the last times you’ll have to deal with the EFC. The FAFSA Simplification Act created a new system and renamed it to the Student Aid Index to avoid confusion, and it will be rolling out later.
When you see the EFC number, remember that along with Pell Grants, work-study jobs and federal student loans, you may be eligible for merit awards or other scholarships (or even some really unusual scholarships) to help you pay the remaining portion.
It is not a definitive number of what you will owe. We repeat: Do not panic.
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How to Fill Out the FAFSA Form, Step by Step
If you’ve completed the preparation steps above, the FAFSA form itself will be manageable. Still, it’s good to know what to expect. Here, we’ll break down the infamous FAFSA application form itself — and, hopefully, you’ll find that it’s not so intimidating afterall.
The FAFSA Web Worksheet and last year’s FAFSA application will drastically help you set expectations.
The FAFSA application is about 10 pages long and contains more than 100 questions. But once you have it in front of you, you’ll notice that several pages are dedicated to instructions and definitions. Only about six pages contain questions. Even better, you won’t need to answer every single question. There are separate sections for parental information that won’t be required for everyone.
Overview of FAFSA Steps
Here is a basic overview of the seven application steps. We’ll dive even deeper into how the subsections breakdown below.
- Steps one through three concern the student applicant’s financial situation.
- Step four asks for parents’ financial information. (If your parents no longer claim you as a dependent on their taxes, you’ll probably get to skip this part.)
- Step five asks about the student’s household, if you’re not a dependent.
- Step six asks for the names of the schools you’re planning to apply to and the associated FAFSA school codes.
- Step seven is where you sign! If you’re filling out the online form with your parents, they’ll have to use their FSA ID to sign, too.
The form is color-coded and the seven steps are divided in two main categories: student (you) info and parental information. Here’s a closer look.
Student (That’s You) Information Questions
Questions related to you and the schools you want to attend are non-linear and scattered throughout the FAFSA form. That’s because, depending on how you answer the first batch of questions, you may be able to skip over several other questions and sections.
Here’s what you, as a student, may be required to answer.
Steps one through three of the FAFSA ask about your financial situation, basic demographics and marital status. Based on your answers here, you’ll be able to determine if additional information is needed from a spouse (if you’re legally married) or your parents (if you’re younger than 24 and financially dependent on them).
If you are considered a dependent student, you’ll need to provide demographic and tax details on your parents, next. If you’re independent, you can proceed to step five to input your own tax and income info.
Step six is also for students. In this section, you’ll list the top colleges that you want to attend and receive financial aid for. You can use the college’s institution code, which is indexed in an easily searchable database. In lieu of a code, you can list the college’s full name and address.
The final step, step seven, is where you sign and date the form, attesting that the information you provided is true.
Key documents you’ll need to answer questions for the student section include:
- Social Security or Alien Registration number
- Tax forms and income documentation including non-taxable income (if independent); and tax information for your spouse (if legally married)
- A list of schools that you wish to attend and receive aid for (plus their institutional codes or full names and addresses)
If you’ve compiled these documents beforehand, you can probably blast through the student questions in 15 minutes or fewer.
Depending on how you answered the student questions in step three, you may be considered a dependent student, i.e. you rely on your parents for some form of support.
If you answered no to any questions in step three, you and your parent(s) will need to complete step four. This step requests parental information related to taxes, income, demographics and more.
Given the nature of these questions, it’s best you fill these out together (even though the FAFSA form poses them to you — e.g. “What is your parents’ state of legal residence?”)
At the end, step seven will require them to separately sign anyway — either electronically through their own separate FSA account or physically if they don’t have a Social Security number. So it’s best to have them nearby.
Key documents you’ll need to answer questions for the parental section include:
- Parents’ Social Security numbers (if applicable, otherwise use 000-00-0000)
- Tax returns and income documentation for both parents
- Untaxed income documentation for applicable retirement plans, government benefits programs, child support, etc.
After You Submit Your FAFSA Form
Congratulations! You did it.
In a few days, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that summarizes your FAFSA data and confirms you’ve completed your application correctly. You’ll see your EFC, that we mentioned above, listed on your SAR. Again, don’t panic at this number. It’s an estimation.
You’ll also be able to review your Student Aid Report for any mistakes and correct them online through your FSA account.
When the colleges you’ve applied to send your acceptance notices (fingers crossed!), you’ll also get a financial aid award notice, either in the same package/email or a few days afterward. Your school of choice may have additional questions about your FAFSA responses, but in that case, it will contact you directly.
Some schools may ask you to independently verify some of the information you provided on your FAFSA, so it’s a good idea to keep the documents you used to answer the FAFSA questions handy.
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Fill Out the FAFSA Fast With These Tips
Here’s how to cut down on the time it takes to fill out the FAFSA.
- Get your documents ready. To complete the FAFSA, you will need to reference tax forms, income documentation, addresses, emails, Social Security numbers of you, your spouse or parents. Compiling these documents will be the most time-consuming part. You don’t need to wait until the FAFSA form is released to do so. If you have them in order early, you can easily have your FAFSA completed Oct. 1, the day it’s released.
- Decide on your schools early. The FAFSA requires you to list at least one school that you want to attend and request financial aid for. Given that, it’s important you have in mind your top schools before you sit down to fill out the FAFSA. To speed up this process even further, you can collect the schools’ insitutionional codes beforehand as well, so that you don’t have to input the addresses of several colleges.
- Get your family to create their FSA IDs before filling out the FAFSA. Assuming you and your parents meet the requirements (in short, you all have Social Security Numbers), creating separate FSA IDs for everyone involved as soon as you can is one of the most time-saving actions you can take. Having an FSA ID allows you to fully complete the FAFSA online and electronically sign it. Once it’s signed and sent, the Federal Student Aid office can begin reviewing it immediately. Otherwise, you will have to physically sign the FAFSA form and snail mail it to the Department of Education, which could take days or even weeks to process.
- Plan a date and time to complete the FAFSA that works for you and your family. It’s likely either your parents or your spouse will be involved in the FAFSA form process. To ensure everything is submitted in a correct and timely fashion, it’s best if you can wrangle everyone in the same room (or video call!). That way, you can all work on the relevant sections at the same time and tackle any questions as they come up. (Pizza is optional but highly encouraged.)
If you’re properly prepared and take these steps, you should be able to knock out the entire FAFSA process in as little as an hour.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About the FAFSA
Here are the answers to your frequently asked questions about the FAFSA.
Who Should Apply for the FAFSA?
Any current and prospective college students should fill out the FAFSA, even if they don’t think they’ll qualify. Many colleges use the information from the FAFSA to determine eligibility for merit-based scholarships and other financial aid. Currently enrolled college students should fill out the FAFSA each year to account for any changes in income, dependency or marital status. After you fill out the FAFSA the first time, it becomes much easier to do so subsequently.
What are the FAFSA Deadlines?
The FAFSA becomes available on Oct. 1, 2021 for the upcoming 2022-2023 academic school year. The federal deadline to submit the FAFSA for that academic year is June 30, 2023. However, many states set their own deadlines, which could be much sooner. And federal aid is earmarked on a first-come-first-served basis. So applying earlier is always better.
How Long Does it Take to Fill Out the FAFSA?
How long it will take you and your family to complete the FAFSA entirely depends on how much preparation you’ve put in. There are several key things you can do before you sit down to fill out the form itself, which we’ve outlined above. These steps — like gathering your demographic, tax and income documentation early — will drastically cut down on the time it takes to complete the FAFSA.
If you are well prepared with the information requested on the FAFSA form, it can take as little as one hour to complete and submit.
What Did the FAFSA Simplification Act change?
The FAFSA Simplification Act changed a lot, and it’s key goal was to make the FAFSA quicker and easier to submit. The new law, which passed in December 2020, will ultimately cut the FAFSA form down to 36 questions, expand eligibility for need-based grants, reduce the burden for supplying tax documentation from the IRS and more.
However, the FAFSA form released on Oct. 1, 2021, will not reflect most of the changes outlined in the new law because, as the Department of Education said, there was not enough time to implement many of the new rules.
Adam Hardy is a personal finance reporter and editor based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Lisa Rowan is a former senior writer and on-air journalist for The Penny Hoarder. She would like to warn you that you need to fill out the FAFSA for graduate school, too.