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 student loans.

Fill out the application 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

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October 1, 2017

Open date for the 2018-19 FAFSA.

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Your school’s FAFSA deadline

Different states and colleges have different FAFSA deadlines.

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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

The first step in filling out the FAFSA is creating a Federal Student Aid ID. This username-password combination will allow you to fill out the form online and access information about your financial aid for years to come, including looking up any student loans you have to repay after graduation. If you’re a dependent student, your parent or guardian will need his or her own FSA ID.

Follow the instructions on the Federal Student Aid website to create your FSA ID.

Get organized before you fill out the FAFSA so you don’t need to search for financial information as you complete the form. Our interactive FAFSA checklist will tell you which documents you’ll want to have handy before you start.
How you fill out the FAFSA depends on your family circumstances. Our guide has tips on what financial information to provide based on your situation, and where to get additional help if you need it. Choose the option below that best applies to you for guidance on how to answer each question on the FAFSA.

Family structure (dependent students):

Family structure (independent students):

Immigration status:

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.

You’ll be asked to enter FAFSA school codes for up to 10 schools where you plan to apply. You can search for school codes within the online application. If you’re submitting a paper version of the FAFSA, you’re limited to four schools. Look up the school codes on the Federal Student Aid website.

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

Find out if your state or one of the colleges where you’re applying requires additional financial aid applications. Some colleges require their own scholarship or grant application, or another standardized form called the CSS/Financial Aid Profile. Certain states also have separate financial aid applications.
You’ll receive a Student Aid Report that summarizes the information you provided on the FAFSA by email or snail mail between three days and three weeks after you submit it. Log in with your FSA ID to view the report on fafsa.ed.gov, and make sure you didn’t make any mistakes. If your FAFSA is incomplete, your report will note what you need to do to complete it.

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.

If you find a mistake on your Student Aid Report, immediately correct your FAFSA. You should also update the form if your dependency status changes or you want to add or delete a school. If you filed your FAFSA electronically, log in to your account and click “Make FAFSA corrections.”
Some colleges verify that the information on a percentage of FAFSA forms is correct. If you’re selected, you’ll be notified by the school’s financial aid office, or you may see it indicated on your Student Aid Report. Being selected isn’t necessarily a sign you did something wrong; some schools require that all students go through the process, while others verify a random group of students. The school conducting the verification process will ask you to submit certain documents that support the information you included on your FAFSA.
After you’ve received your college acceptance letters, usually in spring, you’ll get a financial aid award letter from each school. Depending on your financial need, your award letters will have a mix of need-based and non-need-based federal and state aid, and potentially aid from the college itself.

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.

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.
  • 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.
Sometimes your FAFSA doesn’t reflect a major change in your financial situation. For example, maybe one of your parents has become unemployed, or an immediate family member is dealing with mounting medical bills. If this happens, you can appeal your financial aid award with your college’s financial aid office. Appeals processes vary by campus, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get more money, but it’s worth a shot, especially if you have a good reason for appealing.
You have to submit the FAFSA for each school year that you want to receive financial aid. But once you’ve submitted it the first time, you can fill out a renewal FAFSA in subsequent years. Renewal FAFSAs prefill some questions with information from past forms. Before you submit one, make sure it’s up to date. If your financial situation has changed substantially, you can also start over from scratch.

Recent FAFSA changes

Last year, the Department of Education began opening the FAFSA earlier than it had previously, in October instead of January. You can access the FAFSA for the 2018-19 school year starting on Oct. 1, 2017.

The department also changed the tax year that it requires families to submit income information based on. 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.

Types of financial aid

Filing the FAFSA makes you eligible for many types of financial aid, but you don’t have to accept all the aid you qualify for. Use grants, scholarships and work-study dollars before taking out student loans.

You don’t have to repay these forms of financial aid. They’re known as “gift aid.”

If you have a financial need, you can get a job on or near campus to cover some of your college costs.

You’ll have to repay all the money you borrow, plus interest. Generally, federal student loans are better than private ones.

Learn more