NERDWALLET'S FAFSA GUIDE
Find 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?
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.
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 StudentAid.gov 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):
• 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
• I am an undocumented immigrant
• I am a U.S. citizen, but my parents are undocumented immigrants
To speed up the application process and avoid mistakes, transfer your 2018 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 StudentAid.gov.
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.
Mark your calendar
October 1, 2020
Open date for the 2021-22 FAFSA.
Your school’s FAFSA deadline
Different states and colleges have different FAFSA deadlines.
June 30, 2022
Federal deadline for the 2021-22 FAFSA.
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. Learn more about the differences between the FAFSA and the CSS 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 StudentAid.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."
» MORE: How to make FAFSA corrections and updates
Some colleges verify that the information on a percentage of FAFSA forms is correct. If you’re selected for FAFSA verification, 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 aid 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. Learn more about 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.
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.
» MORE: If you didn’t get enough financial aid, here’s what you can do.
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.
How much debt can you afford to repay?
Get help with the FAFSA
• Chat with a live agent
• Call the FAFSA help hotline at 800-433-3243 (334-523-2691 for international callers)
• Form Your Future helps organize FAFSA completion events nationwide. Click on the link to find one near you.
• Pell Abacus is a tool for comparing schools’ net prices, or the amount you’ll owe after grants and scholarships.
More financial aid info from NerdWallet
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