No one loves the word “free” more than a college student.
By filling out the FAFSA, you can get more than freebie T-shirts and slices of pizza: You can get financial aid for college.
The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the primary form that the federal government, states and colleges use to award grants, scholarships, work study and student loans. Grants and scholarships are free, but you have to earn the work study dollars and pay back the loans.
You can find the application at fafsa.ed.gov. The following two FAFSA changes take effect this year:
- The form for each year will become available three months earlier than it had previously, in October instead of January. You can access the FAFSA for the 2017-18 school year on Oct. 1, 2016. This better aligns the financial aid and college application processes and gives students more time to apply for aid.
- Families can use their prior-prior year tax information to complete the form instead of the prior year’s tax information. That means using 2015 tax information instead of 2016 tax information to complete the 2017-18 form. This allows families to file the FAFSA before they file their previous year’s taxes.
Here’s a crash course in how to complete the application, with the full details below. Depending on your situation, you might not have to complete every step.
Make your FSA ID
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.
You can create a FSA ID before the FAFSA opens Oct. 1. On or after that date, use your FSA ID to begin the online FAFSA, which includes about 100 questions. Don’t worry about finishing it in one sitting, as you can save your progress for up to 45 days. Submitting the FAFSA online is the fastest way to apply for aid, but you can also print out a paper version and mail it in.
The application has the word “free” in its name for a reason: There’s no cost to submit it.
Add FAFSA deadlines to your calendar
States and individual college deadlines fall as early as November 2016. The federal deadline for the 2017-18 FAFSA isn’t until June 30, 2018, but plan to submit the form as close to Oct. 1, 2016, as possible because some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
Gather the right documents
You — and if you’re a dependent, your parent or guardian — need some combination of the following documents and pieces of information to complete your FAFSA.
- Social Security number.
- 2015 federal income tax returns, W-2 forms and records of any untaxed income.
- Bank statements and records of your investments.
- Alien Registration Number (if you aren’t a U.S. citizen).
To get a personalized list of the documents you need to complete the FAFSA based on your citizenship and dependency status, head over to NerdWallet’s FAFSA checklist. The more prepared you are, the faster you’ll zip through the application.
Use the IRS Data Retrieval tool
On March 9, 2017, the Department of Education announced that the data retrieval tool will be unavailable for several weeks. Those who wish to apply for federal financial aid will need to fill out their tax information manually on the FAFSA. If you don’t have your tax return, you should log into your tax software account or request a copy of your tax transcript from the IRS. Read more here.
To speed up the application process and avoid mistakes, transfer your 2015 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.
List the colleges where you want to apply
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.
Complete additional financial aid forms if they’re required
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.
Review your Student Aid Report
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.
Correct or update your FAFSA if necessary
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.”
Go through the verification process if you’re selected
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.
Review your financial aid award package
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.
Appeal your award if you think you deserve more
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.
Renew your FAFSA every year of college
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.
More FAFSA Help
Completing the FAFSA might not be the most exciting item on your to-do list, but filling it out will go a long way toward covering your college bill.
If the form still feels overwhelming, there are free ways to get support. Programs around the country such as College Goal Sunday provide in-person FAFSA guidance. For question-by-question help from your own computer, check out NerdWallet’s FAFSA Guide and tutorial.
Updated Sept. 7, 2016.