The most important document you can fill out for financial aid for college is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The FAFSA is the first step in the financial aid process. Use it to apply for federal student financial aid, such as the Pell Grant, student loans, and college work-study. The FAFSA is used to determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your school uses the EFC to determine the amount of federal student aid you will be eligible for.
The College Spot has compiled a list of time saving suggestions and frequently asked questions to help you understand and complete your FAFSA.
Time Saving Suggestions
Gather the documents you need ahead of time.
Start with your Social Security Number, driver’s license, income tax returns, bank statements, and investment records.
Note important deadlines and apply early.
To meet the federal student aid deadline you’ll want to apply as early as possible beginning January 1st of each year.
State and school deadlines will vary and tend to be early. Check with them to find out their exact deadline dates.
Read the instructions.
Many questions on the FAFSA are straightforward, like your address, but some questions are asked specifically for purposes of student financial aid. Common words like “household”, “investments”, and even “parent” may have special meaning, so read all instructions carefully.
Complete your tax return.
We recommend that you (and your parents if you are a dependent student) complete your tax return before filling out your FAFSA. This will make completing the FAFSA easier. If you have not filed your tax return yet, you can still submit your FAFSA but you must provide correct income and tax data once you have filed.
List all schools you may attend on the FAFSA.
Make sure that you list all of the colleges you may attend on your FAFSA. If the school is not listed, it will not receive a copy of your Student Aid Report (SAR) and it will not be able to determine the amount aid you will be eligible for.
Sign with a PIN and file electronically
A PIN is a 4-digit number that is used in combination with your Social Security Number, name, and date of birth to identify you as someone who has the right to access your own personal information on federal student aid websites.
The security of your PIN is important because it can be used to:
- Electronically sign federal student aid documents (like your FAFSA and loan applications)
- Access your personal records
- Make binding legal obligations
You and your parents (if you are a dependent student) will need to sign your FAFSA. Using a PIN to sign your FAFSA electronically is by far the fastest and most reliable way. You can print, sign, and mail in a signature page, but it will take longer to process.
You can apply for a PIN at: www.pin.ed.gov.
Frequently Asked FAFSA Questions
What is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)?
The FAFSA is used to apply for federal student aid such as grants, work-study, and loans. You may also use the FAFSA to apply for most state and some private aid.
What methods are available for completing the FAFSA?
You can complete the FAFSA electronically on the web or you can fill out and mail a paper FAFSA. Beware of websites charging a fee to file your FAFSA. The FAFSA is offered for free at such sites as www.fafsa.gov. Do not submit more than one application.
When do I get the aid?
Your financial aid will be paid to your through your school. Typically, your school will first use the aid to pay tuition fees, and room and board (if provided by the school). Any remaining aid is given to you for your other expenses.
If you are in need of additional financial aid, you can apply for a private student loan with one of the many College Spot partners.
What do I need to keep in mind when filling out the FAFSA?
- The words “you” and “your” always mean the student.
- The word “school” means a college, university, graduate or professional school, community college, vocational or technical school, or any other school beyond high school.
- Round to the nearest dollar and do not use commas or decimal points.
- For dates, enter numbers that correspond to the month, day, and year. For example, for November 7, 1981, enter 11071981.
- FAFSA questions that refer to the “school year” mean the upcoming school year starting on July 1st until June 30th of the following year.
- Do not mail tax forms or worksheets when filing your form.
- Check with your financial aid administrator if you have unusual circumstances.
Why is it important to submit accurate information?
The information that you supply can be verified by your school, your state, or your lender. You may be asked to provide U.S. income tax returns and other information. If you cannot or do not provide these records to your school when asked, you may not get federal student aid.
If you get federal student aid based on incorrect information, you will have to pay it back. You may also have to pay fines and fees.
What if I am unable to provide my parents’ information due to special circumstances?
Under Federal law your family is primarily responsible-to the extent they are able-for paying for your college expenses. To determine how much your family can afford to pay towards your college expenses your financial information, and your parents’ (if you are a dependent student), must be collected.
Under very limited circumstances, an otherwise dependent student may be able to submit the FAFSA without parental information due to special circumstances. Some examples of special circumstances are:
- Your parents are incarcerated; or
- You have left home due to an abusive family environment; or
- You do not know where your parents are and are unable to contact them (and you have not been adopted).
What happens after I submit my form?
You will be mailed a paper Student Aid Report (SAR), or you will receive an email that lets you access your electronic SAR. Your SAR will contain either a request for further information or a number called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your school uses your EFC to determine the amount of your federal grants, loans, or work-study awards for which you may be eligible.
Your school, your state, or lender may ask you to verify the accuracy of the information you gave on your application.
When will the school I listed receive my FAFSA information?
Any school you have listed on your FAFSA will receive an electronic copy of your Student Aid Report (SAR) once your application has been processed.
Foreign schools may not be able to receive your SAR electronically, so check with the school to see if they will need a paper copy of the SAR.
What if my situation changes?
Some questions will ask you to make projections; for example, you must estimate your family’s income tax status for the coming year. If your answers to these questions change, wait until you receive your SAR, and then check with your financial aid administrator. You cannot update income or asset information to reflect changes to your family’s financial situation if those changes took place after the FAFSA was filed.
The income and expense information reported on the FAFSA must be accurate for the past year, not for the coming year.
Where can I find additional information?
You can also check with your school’s financial aid office for more information on available student aid.