Imagine passing up free money for college. Money with no strings attached. That would be crazy, right? Yet every year, hundreds of thousands of students who are eligible for federal student aid never receive it—because they don’t even apply for it. According to the New York Times, nearly 1.7 million high school seniors neglected to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (aka the FAFSA) during the 2020–2021 school year. Of those students, just under half would have likely qualified for a federal Pell Grant for low-income students. For many students, that unclaimed money may have made the difference between just a high school diploma and a college education. Sure, filing the FAFSA can seem like an intimidating process. Some families decide it’s not worth the hassle; some families think their income is too high to qualify. Don’t make their mistake.
What is the FAFSA all about?
The federal government awards around $125 billion in student aid every year in the form of grants, loans, and work-study, and some portion of that money could be yours. The FAFSA also considers several other factors along with income. So even if you think your family makes “too much money” to qualify for aid, you should always apply anyway. After all, the form is free, and you really don’t have anything to lose. If you find the FAFSA daunting (as so many students and families do), don’t be afraid to ask for help. “Don’t go it alone,” advises Ajamu Clarke, program manager for DC public schools at the DC College Access program, which helps low-income students apply to college. You might find your own local college access program, or you can ask your high school college guidance counselor for help. You can also call the admission offices of the colleges and universities you’re applying to, or perhaps even the local community college—whether you are applying there or not. They will gladly help.
If you don't qualify for grants
Even if you aren’t eligible for a federal grant, you might still be awarded work-study or federal loans, which usually offer lower rates and gentler repayment terms than anything you can get from a private bank or other lender. If you’d like a rough idea of whether you might qualify for federal student aid, try the Federal Student Aid Estimator tool: enter just a few financial data points (family income and savings, number and age of siblings, age of parents) and you’ll get a quick estimate of your possible aid award. Just keep in mind this is an estimate only; your actual FAFSA results take a lot more into account and will likely be different.
Another important word of advice when it comes to the FAFSA: You really don’t want to wait until the deadline looms (usually around the end of June). Your aid package will be more generous if you submit your application early—as close to October 1 as you can manage. If you're going to be in college this coming fall, you'll use your tax forms from the previous year.
How long does it take?
The FAFSA site says the form takes less than an hour to complete, but most people can probably finish in half that time. The first four sections you’ll breeze through in 10–15 minutes (you won’t need any bank statements or other financial records to answer these questions). The last part—the financial information section—is a little more time-consuming. But if you have your paperwork together, you can probably get it done in about 15 minutes. Our best timesaving advice: collect your financial papers before you begin, so you and your parents won’t have to stop and rummage around in files! Speaking of which…
What do you need to file the FAFSA?
Here’s your hit list of things to grab so you can file the FAFSA. Heads up: you need this stuff for the student and parents/guardians if the student is a dependent.
- Most recent tax return forms (1040 etc), W-2s, and other records of income earned*
- Current statements from bank accounts, including checking and savings
- Current statements for any investments such as stocks or mutual funds, if applicable
- Records of untaxed income, if applicable (Here's a great list of what counts as taxed and untaxed income from the IRS.)
- Records of assets, from farm properties to investment real estate, if applicable
- Social Security number (or alien registration number if a non-citizen)
- Drivers license, if applicable
- FSA ID number (more on that below!)
* Rather than grab these papers, you may be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to enter the relevant figures automatically. More on that below.
Ready to begin?
Head over to the FAFSA site: studentaid.gov. Don’t fall for websites that charge a fee to submit the form; as you might guess from its name, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is entirely free, so apply only on the FAFSA’s official website! (It’s possible to submit a paper application, but there are disadvantages; for example, you can only select four colleges to receive your information rather than 10, and processing times are a bit longer.)
Your first steps
You’ll need to create a Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID). You’ll use this ID to access your financial aid information through your college years, as well as afterwards, when you repay any loans. On the FAFSA home page, you’ll click on “start a new FAFSA,” then “enter your (the student’s) FSA ID.” Parents logging in to the application need to create their own FSA ID, which can be done on the Federal Student Aid website. Students and parents should be sure to use their own IDs to log in; mixing these up is a common mistake and can delay your aid.
As soon as you create your ID, write it down and keep it in a place you will not lose it. Your parents should do the same. Forgetting the ID, says LD Ross, Jr., Director of Programs at DC College Access, is a leading reason some students never end up completing the form. Once you lose it, he says, “It takes an act of Congress almost to get back into it.” If you’ve filed the FAFSA in past years, choose the “returning user” login; that way, some of your information (like basic demographics) will be filled in automatically.
Save keys and intro information
Next, create a save key—a short-term password that lets you pause and return to the form later. You and your parents can share the save key, so you can enter the first few sections, and they can continue with the trickier financial questions. You’ll then be taken to the Introduction page, which offers links to some basic questions you might have before you begin: What documents do I need? (There’s a list.) Can I take a break and finish later? (Yes, you can save the form for up to 45 days—but don’t! File the FAFSA ASAP because of the first-come, first-served nature of federal aid.)
One last thing before we go step by step through each section: make sure your FAFSA is totally accurate. That means carefully inputting information and proofreading your work before hitting submit—especially since errors can delay processing and potentially cost you FAFSA dollars. But more importantly, do not, under any circumstances, under-report or omit assets or income. Lying on the FAFSA is fraud, the government is very good at sniffing it out, and you will not only have to repay every federal financial aid dollar you receive, you (and your parents) could be subject to significant fines and a prison sentence. Now, with that chilling warning out of the way, let’s take you through the FAFSA, section by section.
It’s not the most beautifully designed website (or paper form, for that matter), but it’s clear enough, and at each online step, a “help and hints” box pops up at the side, in case you need guidance. If you still have questions with any of the FAFSA sections or steps, ask your school’s college counselor, or call a college financial aid office.
This is pretty basic: the name of your high school, what year in college you’ll be entering, and your parents’ level of education. (If your parents don’t have college degrees, you may be eligible for state grants specifically for students who are the first in their family to attend college.) This is also your chance to opt into federal work-study. Consider saying yes if you aren’t sure; you can always decline later if you change your mind. You will also be asked if you have registered with Selective Service (the military draft). Nearly all men age 18–26, including undocumented immigrants and people with disabilities, are required by law to register—and if you aren’t registered, you will be denied federal financial aid. If you are not planning to be a conscientious objector, you can register via the FAFSA form by checking a box. (Thankfully, there are no further philosophical quandaries lurking in the form.)
Here’s where you enter the names of the colleges you plan to apply to. You can add as many as 10, but don’t worry if you haven’t finalized your list. If you want to add another college (or swap one out, if you have 10 listed already), you can make changes later. For each school you include, you will be asked if you plan to live on campus, off campus, or with your parents (because you won’t need funds for room and board if you will live at home). For state aid, some states require that colleges are listed in a specific order; check the Federal Student Aid website to see if your own state is fussy about this.
Colleges want to know if your parents support you or if you are an independent adult. The vast majority of high school students are considered dependent for college financial aid/FAFSA purposes. However, you’re generally considered an independent student if you are:
- 24 years old by December 31 of the award year
- A graduate or professional student during the award year
- Married (or separated)
- A parent or have other dependents who currently receive more than half their support from you
- An orphan or a ward of the court
- A veteran of the US Armed Forces
In these cases, you won’t be asked about your parents’ or guardians’ demographics or finances. Otherwise, you are most likely a dependent student. If your family situation is complex (for example, you are a minor but don’t live with your parents or don’t have access to their financial information), you can find some guidance on family dynamics on the Federal Student Aid website. And, yet again, high school counselors and college financial aid officers can be a big help in answering your questions.
You fill this FAFSA section out if you are a dependent. Aid decisions will consider your parents’ age (because older parents may need to conserve more for retirement), how many children they support, and, most important, if they will have additional children in college that year. Each of these elements affects the calculation for your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), so answer the questions carefully. For example:
- Older parents are expected to contribute less since they are closer to retirement.
- Parental contribution is divided by the number of students in college.
- If the parents are divorced or separated, include only the financial data of the parent with whom the student lives for the greater part of the 12 months preceding the date of the application. If that parent has remarried, the student must include that stepparent’s income and asset data as well. Note: some colleges request information on the “other” natural parent and may expect a contribution from that parent as well.
Now you’ve reached the heart of the FAFSA. You'll need to fill in your parents’ adjusted gross income from the 1040 form, or whichever form they file. (Or your income, if you are independent.) The aforementioned IRS Data Retrieval Tool really shines with this part of the FAFSA, because it transfers your tax information directly to the form, saving time and eliminating the chance of a mistake. You’ll also be asked about assets—both your parents’ and yours. That’s right: the money you’ve saved from summer jobs, birthdays, or bat mitzvah gifts—all of it is fair game. And your colleges will expect you to contribute a percentage of your savings to your college tuition.
Of course, your parents will need to report their savings and investments too, including money market accounts, mutual funds, 529 college savings accounts (yours and any siblings’), and investment real estate (not your family’s primary home). Qualified retirement accounts—IRAs, 401(k), 403(b), or pension plans—aren’t counted as assets. As always, you can find guidance in the pop-up help boxes at the right side of the page.
Sign and submit
You made it! After you’ve finished the FAFSA’s financial section, you add your electronic signature with your FSA ID and hit submit. That’s it. If your parents have another student in college, their demographic and financial information can be transferred to the next application, so they don’t have to duplicate their efforts.
Your Student Aid Report
The number crunchers at the Department of Education will review your FAFSA and prepare a Student Aid Report (SAR). You’ll get an email, usually within three to five days, explaining how to view your SAR online. If you can’t bear the wait, you can log in to the FAFSA site to check its progress. If you didn’t provide a working email address, you’ll get your report in the mail. You’ll still be able to access your SAR online, as long as you signed with your FSA ID.
The SAR won’t tell you what your financial aid package will be—that’s decided by each college. Instead it will reveal your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC: this is the amount the Federal Student Aid formula believes you and your family can pay for the coming year of college, based on all the information you provided on the FAFSA. If you see a mistake on the Student Aid Report, or you want to add a college to your list, you can still make changes; you’ll find guidance on the FAFSA help page.
The colleges you listed on the FAFSA will be able to access your SAR online right away, and each one will make its own decision about how much aid it can offer you. Just keep in mind that many colleges have their own financial aid application forms too; make sure you fill those out before their unique deadlines as well. Finally, your colleges will send your financial aid award letter along with your acceptance letter (or occasionally soon after). With any luck, you’ll get solid financial aid offers from several great-fit schools.
There you have it! A step-by-step guide through the FAFSA. Your last step is the hardest: compare your financial aid offers and make your final college choice. If you have any questions, you should first ask the financial aid counselors at your (potential) college or university. You can also contact the FAFSA directly!
Want to learn even more about scholarships, grants, loans, and other ways to pay for college? Check out all the advice in our Financial Aid section.