Fall is notorious for football games, cool weather, pumpkin patches, and for many families, tackling the FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If you are heading to college next year, completing and filing the FAFSA is likely on your and your parents’ minds. It’s best to stop thinking and start doing—you should try to file the FAFSA as close to October 1 as possible, as most aid is administered on a first come, first served basis and can run out.
While the federal government has made the whole filing process much easier, there are still some key things to remember when completing the FAFSA. Here’s everything you need to know.
1. Gather the appropriate information
Before you dive into the FAFSA, make sure you have all the required documentation. This includes:
- Social security number (parents and student)
- Alien registration number (if you are not a US citizen)
- Driver’s license
- Federal income tax returns, W-2s, other records of money earned, and records of untaxed income (if applicable)
- Bank statements and records of investments
- FSA ID to sign electronically (each parent and student needs an FSA ID)
- List of schools you’re interested in attending
If you’re a parent filing the FAFSA for your child, they will also need to provide many of the above documents. Check the FAFSA website for more details.
2. File a new FAFSA each year
Even if this is your fourth time around, you need to file a new FAFSA with current information each year. The amount of money you’re offered for each FAFSA application lasts for an academic year, so for each year your child plans on being in school, you will need to reapply for federal aid. For example, after October 1, 2019, you will file the FAFSA for the 2020–2021 school year.
3. Complete and file early
Get your calendar out, because you have an important date to write down. The FAFSA is available online starting October 1 of each calendar year. This means you can begin filling it out on that date, and you should file as soon as possible after that date.
If you’re not able to file early, make sure to check with the admission and financial aid office at each of the schools you’re applying to. While the official deadline to file the FAFSA is June 30, 2021, you need to meet the deadlines set by each of the schools on your list.
4. Use the Data Retrieval Tool
The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) electronically transfers your tax return information to your FAFSA. Not only does this save time, it also ensures that you input accurate information.
Related: Financial Aid Terms You Should Know
5. Know which parent should file
In the case of a student with divorced or unmarried parents, Leslie H. Tayne, Esq., a financial attorney and founder of Tayne Law Group, says it can be difficult to determine which parent is supposed to file the FAFSA and whose income is accounted for.
“If one parent has full custody, that parent should file, but if custody is split, the parent who provides greater financial support to the child should file,” she explains. And if the parent filing is remarried, Tayne says that parent’s new spouse’s financial information must also be included on the FAFSA.
6. Register for the selective services
All males age 18–26 must register with Selective Service to be eligible for federal student aid. If you have not registered, there is a section on the FAFSA that allows applicants to have the US Department of Education complete this process with Selective Service. Just make sure to check the “Register me” box.
7. Don’t omit information
This is one of the most frequent mistakes people make on the FAFSA. When inputting information, make sure to fill in every single field. If you leave a field blank, it’s assumed that you forgot to answer the question. When in doubt, enter a “0” or “not applicable” instead of leaving a blank.
8. Send to all schools
Lindsey Conger, an independent college counselor at MoonPrep.com, always reminds families she works with to send the FAFSA to all your schools. When you send the FAFSA out, it will only allow you to send it out to 10 schools initially. However, once you receive your Student Aid Report (SAR), you can then send that to every school on your list.
9. Always complete the FAFSA
Even if you feel your family’s income is high, Joe DePaulo, cofounder and CEO of College Ave Student Loans, says you need to apply. “Many factors—not just household income—go into determining how much aid students receive,” he says. The number of people in the household, child support costs, and home equity can also impact a student’s award package.
Minimally, DePaulo says most undergraduate students qualify for unsubsidized federal loans, and since access to these loans is not need based, your income doesn’t matter. Plus, if your student does need to borrow, those federal Direct Loans are the best place to start since they have low fixed interest rates and repayment protections.
10. Sign with your FSA ID
Do not skip this step! When filing the FAFSA online, both parents and the student must sign electronically with their FSA ID in order for the application to process.
While you’re completing the FAFSA, don’t forget about scholarships too! Find free money using our Scholarship Search tool.