NerdWallet's FAFSA Guide
How to Get Free Money for College
Apply for scholarships and grants, which don't need to be repaid, as well as student loans, by submitting the FAFSA.
What is the FAFSA?
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the form that the federal government, states, colleges and other organizations use to award financial aid. Submitting it is your key to accessing grants, scholarships, work-study programs and federal student loans.
Completing the FAFSA is the first step for anyone making college plans. But you should also know what other options are available and how much you can afford to borrow.
Everything starts with the FAFSA. Submit the FAFSA each year you’re in college — it only takes 30 minutes on average to complete when you’re prepared. Let’s get started.
Mark your calendar
October 1, 2017
Open date for the 2018-19 FAFSA.
June 30, 2019
Federal deadline for the 2018-19 FAFSA.
Use 2016 tax information to complete the 2018-19 FAFSA.
How to complete the FAFSA
Follow the instructions on the Federal Student Aid website to create your FSA ID.
Family structure (dependent students):
- My parents are married
- My parents are divorced
- My parents were never married
- I live with legal guardians or foster parents
- My parents are same-sex partners
- One of my parents has died
Family structure (independent students):
- I don’t know the whereabouts of one or both parents
- I have an abusive or neglectful parent
- One or both of my parents is incarcerated or institutionalized
- I have no contact with one or both parents
- I am legally emancipated
To speed up the application process and avoid mistakes, transfer your 2016 federal tax return information directly into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. When you reach the financial information section of the FAFSA, click “Link to IRS” to prefill the form with your information.
If you haven’t decided where you’re applying by Oct. 1, list the schools you think are possibilities and submit the FAFSA as soon as possible. If you change your mind, you can always update your FAFSA. All of the schools you list will receive your FAFSA information for their financial aid use.
Submitted the FAFSA? What to do next
The report will also include your expected family contribution. Your EFC is an estimate of the amount your family can afford to pay out of pocket for college, and colleges use it to calculate your eligibility for need-based aid. You won’t necessarily get all the need-based aid money you qualify for because some aid programs have limited funds. But what you don’t get in need-based aid you can get in non-need-based aid. For more on how this works, check out our page about understanding your FAFSA Student Aid Report.
Just because you’re eligible for a certain type of aid doesn’t mean that you have to accept it. Accept all the free money and work-study opportunities before you take out any loans, as those come with a price tag. If you need to tap into loan dollars, borrow only as much as you truly need. You don’t have to borrow the maximum amount of loan money you’re eligible for.
»MORE: If you didn’t get enough financial aid, here’s what you can do.
Here’s an overview of the financial aid options available through the FAFSA:
- Grants and scholarships: There are four types of federal grants, including the Pell Grant for undergraduate students with financial need. Some states have grant programs, too, such as California’s Cal Grant program and New York’s Tuition Assistance Program. Ask your state’s education agency what state grants are available to you. The federal government doesn’t offer scholarships, but colleges use the FAFSA to award money, and many private scholarship funds also require applicants to submit the FAFSA. Learn the differences between grants and scholarships.
- Student loans: There are several types of federal student loans, including both subsidized and unsubsidized direct loans, often called Stafford loans, and PLUS loans, which are for parents and graduate students. Some states have loan programs too, but borrow federal student loans first. They typically offer more generous benefits, including the ability to make payments based on your income.
- Work-study: If you have a financial need, you can get a job on or near campus to cover some of your college costs through a federal work-study program. After you accept work-study funds offered in your aid package, it’s up to you to get a job that qualifies for the program and work to earn the money.
Different types of financial aid have different eligibility criteria. Generally, most grants are need-based and most scholarships are merit-based. Any student who is a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen qualifies for federal student loans.
The department also changed the tax year from which families should submit income information. Families should now use their “prior-prior year” tax information to complete the FAFSA instead of the prior year’s tax information. In other words, use 2016 tax information to complete the 2018-19 form. This allows you to file the FAFSA before filing your previous year’s taxes.