FAFSA 101: A Starter Guide for Students

Carolina Jacobs

Feb 12, 2023

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On top of classes, homework, projects and maintaining a social life, one of the most challenging parts about earning a college degree is paying to attend a college or university. 

The cost of tuition at higher education institutions continues to rise every year, making it more and more difficult for the average student to afford a college education. According to data from U.S. News, the cost of tuition and fees for ranked private national universities increased by 134% since 2002. 

Although paying for college might seem daunting, it’s important that you explore all of the ways you can pay for school. One widely used type of financial aid options most colleges, universities, and career schools use to assist students is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Below is a helpful guide to help you learn more about FAFSA, how to see if you qualify and how to apply for federal student aid to help pay for your education.

What is FAFSA?

The FAFSA is a virtual application you can use to apply for financial aid from the federal government. Virtually all two and four-year colleges and universities, including community colleges and career schools, use FAFSA applications to award students varying amounts of federal, state and college-funded student aid.

The FAFSA is free, does not rely on credit and typically takes about 30 minutes on average to complete and submit. The amount of aid you receive depends on your family’s financial portfolio, including annual income, the size of your household and total assets. 

These components will ultimately help colleges and universities assess your family’s expected family contribution (EFC), the total amount your family will contribute to your college education.

Anyone planning to attend college should know that completing the FAFSA is essential. It’s essentially the key to earning grants, scholarships, federal student loans and work-study programs. You can submit the FAFSA every year.

What Qualifies or Disqualifies a Person for FAFSA?

Because every American family has unique financial circumstances, there are some eligibility requirements students must meet to earn financial assistance.

An entire list of requirements is available on the official FAFSA website, but some basics include being a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen and having a social security number (SSN).

Additionally, you must be qualified to earn a college degree or career school education. For example, you can prove your eligibility by showing your high school diploma or GED certificate or received a homeschool education approved under state law.

Some federal aid programs have more specific eligibility requirements. You can contact your school’s financial aid office to ask questions about a particular program.

How to Apply for FAFSA

Completing the FAFSA might seem intimidating or overwhelming at first, especially if it’s your first time. Here are the steps follow to help you apply for the FAFSA.

1. Create an Account

Before you start, it’s important for you and a parent, if you’re a dependent, to create a Federal Student Aid (FSA) account to cut down on errors or delays during the application process. Be sure to enter your full name and SSN exactly as they appear on your social security card, as mistakes might cause errors.

2. Gather Important Documents

The FAFSA requires information about your family’s financials, so you’ll need to gather several relevant documents. Depending on your circumstances, here are the documents you might need:

  • Driver’s license
  • Social security card
  • Parents’ SSN and social security cards
  • Federal tax information, tax documents and tax returns, such as a W-2 or Form1040
  • Records of untaxed income
  • Information about stocks, bonds, investments, checking and savings accounts, real estate and business and farm assets

FAFSA forms are available on October 1 to apply for the following year. Be sure to keep track of the FAFSA deadlines to ensure you’re applying on time.

3. Start Your FAFSA Forms

Once you begin filling out the FAFSA, the form will ask for various types of information. Thankfully, there are plenty of online guides to help you with any confusing questions. Take your time answering the questions accurately. You can also ask a parent or guardian, sibling, guidance counselor or other trusted adult to assit you with the application process. 

During the process, you’ll need to:

One reputable source, NerdWallet, offers a few helpful guides to help you navigate the FAFSA. For example, if your parents are divorced or separated, your parents are a same-sex couple, a parent has passed away or you are not in touch with one or both of your parents, you can find the guide that best fits your unique circumstances.

4. Sign and Submit

After signing and submitting the FAFSA, you might need to fill out additional financial aid forms, if they’re required. You’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) between three days and three weeks from your submission date. You can use your FSA ID to login to the Student Aid website to view your SAR.

The SAR will include your EFC, which is an estimate of what your family can afford to finance your education. Every family’s EFC will be different, and you might not receive all of the need-based money you qualify for because some of the federal aid programs have limited funds. 

The FAFSA website includes plenty of information about the next steps to receive your federal financial aid. You can decide what aid to accept and learn how your aid is paid out. Your school might contact you to verify that the information you provided on your FAFSA is correct. 

How to Get More Help With the FAFSA

If you run into problems with the FAFSA, try to stay calm! Luckily, you’re not the only person applying for financial aid, so the government offers some helpful resources, including:

  • Email the Federal Student Aid Information Center 
  • Chat with a live agent on the FAFSA site
  • Call the FAFSA Help Hotline at 800-433-3243 (international students: 334-523-2691)
  • Visit the Form Your Future website, which provides walkthrough guides, a FAFSA tracker and various nationwide events to guide students through the application process

Try your best to take your time and avoid making any mistakes on the FAFSA, as they could result in processing delays. It can could also limit the amount you receive in grants, loans and other financial aid.

Apply for Student Aid Using the FAFSA

It’s no secret that earning a degree is expensive, so it’s crucial to explore all of your financing options. The FAFSA is an important tool to help your family receive all the financial aid possible to alleviate some of the burden of paying for your education. Follow the steps above to get started with the FAFSA application process, and you’ll be on your way to earning financial assistance for college.

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