The U.S. Department of Education alone provides $150 billion in grants, loans, and work-study to help over 15 million students with college-related expenses every year. To get your hands on some of this money, though, you need to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. By taking 30 minutes to fill out this application every year, you could find that a previously unaffordable school is now a perfect match!

How do I apply for federal financial aid?

To apply for federal financial aid, you will need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It is an online form that you complete each year to show your family’s economic situation. You will need to input information about the number of people living in your household, their annual income, and your household’s expenses. The FAFSA will then determine your expected family contribution (EFC), or how much money your family is able to put toward your studies in a certain year.

The FAFSA will also recommend you for funding in the form of federal grants, loans, and work-study. This is your financial need. It is calculated by subtracting your EFC from the cost of attending your college or university. Students with higher EFCs will receive less need-based financial aid than students with low EFCs.

Many colleges and universities use the financial need information from the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for additional private or state-based funding. Filling out this form really is the best way to get student aid of all kinds.

Who is eligible for federal financial aid?

To be eligible you must meet certain requirements:

  • Be a United States citizen or an eligible noncitizen
  • Have a valid social security number (SSN)
  • Have a high school diploma or the equivalent
  • Enroll in an eligible degree- or certificate-seeking program
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress in school
  • Not owe a refund on a federal student grant (for example, if you have dropped out)
  • Not be in default on a federal student loan
  • Register with the Selective Service System if you are male
  • Not have a conviction for the possession or sale of illegal drugs while receiving federal student aid

What kind of information will I need to complete the FAFSA?

Before beginning to fill out the FAFSA, you must determine if you are an independent or dependent student, as this affects the information that will be necessary to complete the application.

Who counts as an independent student?

An independent student is at least one of the following:

  • Over 23 years old
  • Married
  • Working on a master’s or professional degree
  • Serving on active duty or a veteran of the U.S. military
  • Has legal dependents other than a child or spouse
  • Is or was a ward of the court, an emancipated minor, an orphan, homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless

If you meet one or more of the requirements for being an independent student, you will only need your own information to fill out the FAFSA. If you meet none of these requirements, you are a dependent student and will also need information from your parent(s) to complete the application.

Whose information is needed?

  • If your parents were never married, provide information for the parent with whom you lived for the majority of the past 12 months. If you spent equal time living with each parent, provide information for the parent who gave you the most financial support during the past 12 months.
  • If your parents are not married, but living together, provide information for both of your parents.
  • If your parents are married, provide information for both of your parents.
  • If your parent has remarried, provide information for your parent and your stepparent.
  • If your parents are divorced or separated, provide information for the parent with whom you lived for the majority of the past 12 months. If you spent equal time living with each parent, provide information for the parent who gave you the most financial support during the past 12 months.
  • If your parent is widowed, provide information for your parent.
  • If you are an independent student, provide information for yourself only.

Dependent students who do not fall into any of these existing categories may want to refer to this handout for additional information.

What information is required?

  • Your social security number or your alien registration number if you are an immigrant that does not have an SSN
  • Your most recent federal income tax returns and W-2 forms
    • You will eventually need the current year’s tax forms. These are often not released until mid to late January. If you want to get a head start on your application, you can fill out the form with estimated income, typically the values from the previous year’s tax return. You will have to go back into the form and correct any differences in these numbers once the current tax return information is available.
  • Recent bank and investment statements
  • Any records of untaxed income such as tips, welfare benefits, Social Security benefits, or veteran’s benefits
  • An FSA ID
  • Your driver’s license number (if you have one)
  • The list of schools that you are considering. You will need their corresponding Title IV Institution Codes, which you can find here. Your FAFSA results will automatically be sent to the schools you list (up to 10), and they can use them to further determine what financial aid you will be offered.
  • Records of unusual family financial circumstances that have changed from the previous year (deaths, job loss, private school tuition for another child, unusual medical expenses not covered by insurance, etc.). These all affect your circumstances and your family’s ability to pay for education. This information cannot be directly recorded on the FAFSA, but you can contact the financial aid office at your school(s). They have the authority to take these circumstances into account and to adjust your cost of attendance or your expected family contribution.

How do I actually complete the FAFSA?

  • Sign up for a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. Before filling out the FAFSA, you will need to create an FSA ID with a username and password. This will give you access to the FAFSA and allow you to electronically sign and submit the form when you have finished. Parent(s) of dependent students are also required to sign off on the FAFSA and thus will also need to sign up for an FSA ID.
  • Replace your previous FAFSA PIN (if applicable). The FSA ID replaced the FAFSA PIN on May 10, 2015. If you have a FAFSA PIN number from a previous year, you must still create an FSA ID, which can easily be linked to your previous PIN number.
  • Complete the FAFSA. You must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid here and submit it, either online or by mail. The online FAFSA will process within three to five days, while the paper FAFSA takes about 10 days to complete processing.
    • The FAFSA is available each year on October 1 for the upcoming academic year. The FAFSA is available through June, but it is suggested that you fill out the FAFSA as close to October 1 as possible to receive the greatest amount of aid.
    • Keep in mind that the FAFSA is a free application. If you’ve found a site that is trying to make you pay for the form, exit and redirect your attention to the official website.
    • The FAFSA takes only about 30 minutes to fill out if you have all the necessary information readily available. Renewals take even less time—no excuses!

What happens next?

After the FAFSA is processed, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) from the U.S. Department of Education. This will list all the information that you included on your FAFSA, let you know if there are any mistakes that need correcting, and display your expected family contribution once everything is complete. It is important to keep this for your records. It can make filling out the FAFSA much easier next year.

The information contained within the SAR is shared with the colleges and universities that you designated. The financial aid office at each school will then use the information to determine how much financial aid you will receive. This number can be different at each school depending on its tuition or cost of attendance and how much your family is expected to contribute.

After coming up with a final award, each school will send you a letter in the mail to explain how much money you are eligible to receive in the form of grants, loans, and work-study. For more information on interpreting this letter, learn how to dissect your financial aid letter.

Page last updated: 11/2016