How To Fill Out the FAFSA

Your Step-by-Step Guide

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is more than just a form. It could be your key to accessing funds from federal, state, and college student aid programs to help you pay for school.

The process of filling out your FAFSA is fairly short and sweet; it typically takes less than an hour. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to fill out the FAFSA.

Why You Need To Complete the FAFSA

Completing a FAFSA is a necessary step for any student who wants to access federal student aid. The information you provide through the FAFSA is used to evaluate your eligibility for need-based federal student aid, such as Pell Grants, work-study, and subsidized student loans. It’s also necessary if you want to access non-need-based aid such as unsubsidized student loans.

The FAFSA isn’t just for federal student aid. Many colleges and states use information provided on the FAFSA to evaluate students’ financial need for assistance offered by school or state programs.

Think your family income is too high to qualify for need-based aid? Don’t plan to use federal student aid? You might be tempted to skip the FAFSA, but it’s still worth filing. The only way to know for sure what aid you might be offered is to complete and submit a FAFSA. Plus, filing a FAFSA does not obligate you to accept any aid you might be offered—it just gives you the option to access it.

When Is the FAFSA Due?

To be eligible for federal student aid, you must submit a FAFSA or FAFSA renewal each school year. You’ll need to consider three different FAFSA deadlines:

  • The federal deadline
  • Deadlines for state student aid
  • Deadlines for aid from your college

You can submit your FAFSA as early as Oct. 1 for the following school year. The federal FAFSA deadline is June 30 at the end of the school year for which you’re filing. For example, you could have submitted an application for the 2021-22 school year starting Oct. 1, 2020, and your deadline to file a FAFSA is June 30, 2022.

It’s generally a good idea to submit your FAFSA early. The FAFSA deadlines for state student aid or aid from your college tend to be much earlier than the federal deadline. Plus, many college and state student aid programs have limited funding and award funds to qualifying students until the budget runs out—even if that happens before the deadline. 

Confused about FAFSA deadlines? This article explains when the FAFSA is due in every state.

Preparing To Apply for Federal Student Aid

Collecting all your documents and information ahead of time can make it easier to fill out the FAFSA. If you’re submitting this form for the first time, you need to create an FSA ID account. To file a FAFSA renewal, you must be able to log in using your existing FSA ID. You’ll also need:

  • Personal identifying information. For U.S. citizens, this could be a Social Security number or your driver’s license number and state. Non-U.S. citizens can use an alien registration number or permanent resident card.
  • Federal tax returns that include all taxable income.
  • Proof of any untaxed income, such as worker’s compensation, child support, housing, veterans benefits, or housing or food allowances.
  • Asset documents such as statements for bank and investment accounts or business records.
  • A list of schools you’re attending or may attend.

How long does it take to fill out the FAFSA? Federal Student Aid reports that completing the FAFSA generally takes less than 60 minutes, including the time it takes to collect the information listed above.

The FAFSA asks for tax and income information from the calendar year two years before the start of the school year. For the 2021-22 school year, for example, you’d provide tax and income info from the calendar year 2019.

Steps To Fill Out the FAFSA

Once you’ve collected all your forms and information, you’re ready to complete a FAFSA. You can choose from a few ways to apply:

  • Online: Log into FAFSA.gov and click “Start here."
  • Through the myStudentAid mobile app: Select “FAFSA Form” and then “Start a New FAFSA Form.”
  • On paper: Complete the form and mail it to Federal Student Aid Programs, P.O. Box 7654, London, KY 40742-7654.

The online and mobile versions will also prompt you to create a “save key” for your FAFSA, which will allow you to save your progress and share your form with your parents if necessary.

We’ll walk you through the steps for filling out the online FAFSA. The paper version has the same steps organized in a slightly different order.

Add Personal Information

The first step is easy: Enter personal info like your name, Social Security number, and date of birth. You’ll also provide contact information like your email address and telephone number, then answer questions about your citizenship and current educational level.

Select Colleges 

Next, you’ll need to provide the FAFSA codes for any colleges you’re attending. This section tells the Federal Student Aid Office to share your FAFSA and federal student aid information with these colleges. Use the Federal School Code Search tool to find the codes for your current or prospective schools.

Figure Out Whether You’re a Dependent

Answer a series of questions to determine if you’re a dependent or independent student, according to federal student aid guidelines. Dependent students will need to report their parents’ information on the FAFSA.

Report Parent Information

If you qualify as a dependent student, the FAFSA will require demographic and financial information from your parent or parents. You can complete this section, or you can share your save key with a parent so they can fill it out themselves. 

Fill In Your Financial Information

You’ll be prompted to provide details about your financial situation. You’ll need to report income from the tax year specified on the FAFSA, and you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to auto-fill this info from your tax return. You’ll also be asked about your savings and checking account balances, investments, and any benefits such as disability or workers’ compensation.

Sign and Submit the FAFSA

Finally, you’ll sign the form. Use your FSA ID to sign if you’re completing the online or mobile versions of the FAFSA; use a hand signature for a paper form. If you’re a dependent student, your parent will also need to sign the FAFSA. Then, submit it and wait for a confirmation webpage to load.

After You Apply for Aid

Congratulations, you’ve submitted your form! You can check the status of your FAFSA by signing in at FAFSA.gov or through the app. Check your email for updates about your FAFSA, as well. If you see a status of “missing signatures” or “action required,” review your form and take any needed steps to update or correct it.

Somewhere between three days and three weeks after submitting the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). Your FAFSA information will be shared with the colleges listed on your application as well as state educational authorities.

Don’t stop thinking about financial aid after you file the FAFSA. This is the perfect time to look for state, college, or private scholarships and grants that could offer additional funds to help you pay for college.

Your college will process your FAFSA form and use that information to determine your eligibility for different forms of student aid. It will then send you a financial aid award letter that outlines all forms of student aid you can access.