We all know how dull completing forms can be. But the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is one form that’s well worth your time.
Filling out the FAFSA can make you eligible for multiple types of financial aid — including grants, scholarships, student loans and work-study — to fund some or all of your college education. You can file it at fafsa.ed.gov. Keep in mind that you should never have to pay to file this form.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about completing the FAFSA in 2016.
The 2016 FAFSA becomes available on Jan. 1, and has several deadlines you should note. Although the federal deadline isn’t until June 30, 2017, it’s best to submit the form as soon as possible. That’s because some forms of financial aid, including certain grants and scholarships, are first come, first served.
States and individual colleges also have their own FAFSA deadlines. Missing them could cost you thousands of dollars in financial aid. These deadlines vary and some fall as early as February. Check the cutoff date for financial aid applications at each college you’re considering, if you haven’t yet accepted an admissions offer. State deadlines are listed on the Federal Student Aid website and on the sidebar of the 2016-17 FAFSA application.
Tip: Mark all necessary FAFSA deadlines on your phone’s calendar and set a reminder for two weeks prior to ensure that you submit your materials on time.
Documents needed to complete the 2016 FAFSA
You might need the following documents for both you and your parents or guardians, if you’re a dependent, to complete your FAFSA. Some applicants won’t need all of these documents. To get a personalized list of the ones you’ll need, head over to our FAFSA checklist.
- Your Social Security number
- Your Alien Registration Number (if you aren’t a U.S. citizen)
- Your most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s and other records of money earned (Note: If you’re eligible, you can transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)
- Bank statements and records of your investments (if applicable)
- Records of your untaxed income (if applicable)
- An FSA ID to sign electronically (If you don’t already have one, create one at the Federal Student Aid website.)
While completing the FAFSA, you’ll be asked to enter the school codes for up to 10 schools where you plan to apply. To find these codes, search the form itself by entering the city, state and name of each school. You can also find the codes through the federal school code search or on each school’s website.
Tip: The FAFSA asks about 100 questions and can take 20 minutes to three hours to fill out. If you gather all of the documents you need ahead of time, it will be much closer to the 20- or 30-minute mark.
The IRS Data Retrieval Tool: Many people are eligible to use this tool, which is a great way to save time when filling out the FAFSA. Simply click “Link to IRS” when prompted to fill in your tax information in the financial information section of the FAFSA, and your data will appear on the form.
The FAFSA4caster: This tool can help you and your family estimate how much federal financial aid you’ll receive by gauging your expected family contribution, or EFC — that is, the amount of money you or your family will be expected to put toward your college costs. It doesn’t take into account institutional or outside aid, so it should be used as a benchmark, rather than a final number, when you’re figuring out college costs.
College Goal Sunday: This program offers students and their families free, in-person advice from knowledgeable volunteers, who are often financial aid professionals. College Goal Sunday events are held in dozens of states during prime FAFSA time.
NerdWallet’s FAFSA Guide: The information you’re required to provide on the FAFSA varies based on your family situation. Our guide provides tips about filling out each section of the application based on your individual circumstances. Plus, it includes real-world advice from college financial aid officers.
Other important information
Student aid report: Also known as your SAR, this report summarizes the information you provided on the FAFSA and basic federal student aid eligibility information. Depending on how you submit your FAFSA, you’ll receive your SAR either online or in the mail. To learn more about the SAR, visit the Federal Student Aid website.
Expected family contribution: Your SAR will also include your expected family contribution, or EFC. This is an estimate of the amount you and your family can pay toward your college costs and is determined by the information you provide on your FAFSA. It’s used to establish the amount of financial aid you can receive for the school year.
Tip: If you run into other unfamiliar terms while you’re filling out the FAFSA, check out our finance glossary for students.
Filing options: You can submit the FAFSA online, print and mail a PDF, or request a paper form to complete by hand and mail. Most people file the FAFSA online, which speeds processing time — and the sooner your form is processed, the sooner you’ll hear back about your financial aid. Completing the form online also makes corrections easier. And the online application lets you send your information to as many as 10 schools, while the mail-in form lets you send it to only four.
Updating your FAFSA: There are four main instances in which you’ll need to edit your FAFSA once you’ve submitted it: You made a mistake on the form, your financial situation has changed, you’ve received updated tax return information, or you want to add or delete a school. If you filed your FAFSA electronically, log back on to your fafsa.gov account and click “make FAFSA corrections.” If you submitted your FAFSA via mail, you’ll need to add the correction to your SAR, sign it and send it back to the provided address. If you’re already enrolled in college, ask your school’s financial aid office if it can make the correction for you.
Filing an appeal: Sometimes a major change in your financial situation isn’t reflected on your FAFSA — perhaps one of your parents became unemployed or died, or one of your immediate family members is dealing with mounting medical bills. If this happens, you can file an appeal with your college’s financial aid office, or the office at the college you’d like to attend. You can also contact that office if your financial aid award isn’t enough to cover your college costs. Financial aid offices are there to help and will do what they can to get you the money you need.
Renewing your FAFSA: You have to submit the FAFSA each school year that you want to receive financial aid. But once you’ve submitted the form the first time, you can fill out a Renewal FAFSA in the following years. A Renewal FAFSA will pre-fill with information from past forms, so before you submit, review the form to make sure it’s up to date. If your financial situation has changed substantially, you can also start over from scratch.
CSS/Financial Aid Profile: This form, which is powered by the College Board, lets you apply for nonfederal financial aid at some 400 schools across the country. It costs $25, plus additional fees if you want to send it to more than one school. However, most schools don’t require it, so check with yours before filling it out.
More from NerdWallet
- Understanding Your FAFSA Financial Aid Options
- How to Pay for College
- NerdWallet’s Student Loan Calculator
This post was updated. It was originally published on Dec. 22, 2014.
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