All About the FAFSA

What is the FAFSA, exactly?

It stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The application is required for students seeking government aid for college. The U.S. Department of Education uses the form to try to calculate how much you can pay for college. Colleges use this as a starting point to determine how much financial support a student will need to attend.

Why is the FAFSA important?

The form is required for all kinds of financial aid. The federal government uses the FAFSA to determine whether you’re eligible for federal student aid, including Pell Grants, student loans, and work-study. It is also the gateway for state funding, college support, and many private scholarships.

How does the FAFSA work?

Type into your favorite search engine. You will be directed to the federal government’s official website. (The website also works on all mobile devices if you prefer to work on your phone.) These online tools will walk you through a series of questions about your family members and your family’s finances. The FAFSA uses this information to calculate how much you and your family can contribute toward your college costs. This number is called the “Expected Family Contribution,” or EFC. Colleges use your EFC to determine how much financial aid you are eligible for.

Is every student eligible for federal financial aid?

If you genuinely need money for college, you are probably eligible for some kind of financial aid. Undocumented immigrant students are not eligible for federal aid. But colleges may accept a paper version of the FAFSA to calculate your financial need–and help you get access to other money. Contact the colleges you are applying to and ask. And even if you think you may not get aid because you or your parents earn too much, you should file the FAFSA for access to merit-based scholarships and federal loans.

What kinds of questions does the FAFSA ask?

The FAFSA form asks for some personal details about you and asks which colleges you would like to attend. The form then asks about your parents and who you live with. The form will ask questions to see if you are “dependent” on one or both of your parents. (Most likely you are—but there are exceptions.) The FAFSA also asks how much money you and your parents made last year. If your parents own a second home or have money in the bank, the FAFSA form asks about that as well.

But I don’t know anything about my parents’ finances!

Your parents will probably need to help you or (better yet) fill out the FAFSA form with you if you are dependent on them. At the very least, they need to give you the information that’s required. The most important document is their federal tax return. Other information may be required as well.

When is the FAFSA due?

The FAFSA is available October 1 and should be completed as soon as possible. A lot of financial aid is “first come, first served,” so you should submit your FAFSA as soon as you can. College deadlines for filing the FAFSA and submitting other financial aid information vary. Be sure to file on time!

Once I’ve submitted my FAFSA form, can I relax?

Not quite yet. You must monitor your email carefully. The FAFSA website will send an important document called the Student Aid Report. Look it over carefully. Make sure your FAFSA form was processed properly and the information was sent to the colleges to which you applied. If you don’t see this email, sign into the FAFSA and look for your Student Aid Report there.

How do I make sure to get all the aid I’m eligible for?

First, make sure to apply for your state’s grants. The online FAFSA form should provide a link to the state form at the end of the application. Try to complete this application immediately after the FAFSA. It is easier to do both forms at the same time. Once colleges get your FAFSA information, they may have more forms to fill out or questions about your application. This is common. Be sure to provide the information as quickly as possible.

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