How to Fill Out the FAFSA as an Independent Student

Jocelyn Segoviano
Jocelyn Segoviano

Jocelyn Segoviano is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance topics. With a passion for helping individuals navigate their financial journeys, she has been providing insightful advice and practical tips to readers for over years.

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Emma Östlund
Emma Östlund

Emma Östlund works as a business operations analyst at Sparrow. Emma studied Psychology, Computer Science, and Markets & Management at Duke University. With a well-rounded background in business and analytics, Emma strives to deliver data-driven conclusions and insights.

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Camden Ford
Camden Ford

Camden leads Sparrow’s business operations – everything from product management to business analytics. After graduating Cum Laude from Duke University where he studied Civil Engineering, Camden worked as a Consultant for A.T. Kearney where he worked in their Strategic Operations practice. With a strong background in analytics, Camden strives to deliver data-driven conclusions and insights.

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December 29, 2023

Filling out the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is crucial to getting you federal aid. But it can be a tricky document to fill out and relies heavily on your parents’ financial information. So, what happens if you don’t have any parental support for college? What does filling out the FAFSA as an independent student mean? And how will it impact your federal aid? If you’re wanting to file as an independent but have no idea where to start, here’s all you need to know.

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What is an Independent Student on the FAFSA? 

An independent student is someone who will report their own information on the FAFSA. So, instead of providing both your’s and your parents’ financial information, you will only enter your own. As a result, your financial situation will determine how much financial aid you get.

The answers you provide on the FAFSA will ultimately determine your dependency status for federal student aid purposes. This will include details on income and finances, which can typically be found on your income tax return.

Can I Claim Myself as an Independent? 

You cannot simply claim yourself as an independent student for financial aid purposes. To be an independent student, you would have to meet one of the following dependency criteria.

  • At least 24 years old (This can look different on the FAFSA from year to year. For example, in the 2019-2020 financial aid award year, the FAFSA asked if you were born before January 1, 1996. On the 2022-2023 Application, they’ll ask if you were born before January 1, 1999.)
  • Married
  • A graduate or professional student
  • An emancipated minor
  • A homeless youth or a youth at risk of being homeless
  • A veteran or in active duty
  • An orphan
  • A ward
  • Someone with other legal dependents

The Federal Aid website offers a dependency fact sheet. The sheet is helpful in determining your financial aid dependency status. The sheet is helpful in determining your financial aid dependency status. The sheet has dependency questions similar to what you’ll see on the FAFSA. If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, you are considered an independent student. If you answer no to all of them, you are not.

How to File as an Independent Student on the FAFSA 

Your ability to file as an independent depends on your dependent student status. Most students will be classified as dependent students, and if you are considered one, you cannot simply file as an independent because you would like to.

If you meet one of the above independent student criteria, then you will be considered an independent student on the FAFSA. You can proceed by filling out the FAFSA per usual.

>> MORE: Most common errors to avoid when filling out the FAFSA

However, if you do not meet one of the criteria, but believe you should be considered an independent student, you can file a dependency override.This is when unusual circumstances allow a dependent student to fill out the FAFSA as an independent. You can get a dependency override for the following reasons:

  • An abusive family environment (ie. sexual, mental, physical, or other forms of domestic violence)
  • Abandonment by parents
  • Incarceration or institutionalization of both parents
  • Parents lacking mental or physical capacity to raise child
  • Parents cannot be located
  • Unsuitable household (ie. child is removed from the home and placed in foster care)
  • A married student’s spouse dies or gets divorced

It’s important to note that there are certain situations that do not merit an override. These include:

  • Self-sufficiency
  • Parents refusing to contribute money for school
  • Parents not providing information for the FAFSA or for verification
  • Parents don’t claim you as a dependent for income tax purposes

Even in combination with each other, you still can’t get an override for these reasons. But, in combination with the list above, you can get an override.

>> MORE: FAFSA requirements: everything you need to know

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Will I Get More Financial Aid as an Independent Student? 

The amount of financial aid you get will be impacted by your dependency status. Independent students have a higher maximum limit for federal student loans. For example, the annual limit for a dependent student is $5,500. But, independent students can take out up to $9,500 in federal loans. Additionally, as an independent student, you may have a lower Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which can help your eligibility for federal loans, scholarships, and certain grants like the Pell Grant.

>> MORE: Four types of financial aid for students

However, in the end, the amount of award money you get depends on your finances. A lower EFC than what you had with your parents can help get you a bigger financial aid award. On the other hand, a higher EFC means a lower aid award. So, while the chance for more financial aid is there, your aid award will be largely dependent on your income and financial information.

If you’ve used up your federal aid resources, look towards student loans.

>> MORE: Compare your student loan rates across 17+ lenders.

Final Thoughts from the Nest 

At the end of the day, your dependency status is just used to figure out how much you can contribute. From this, they’ll figure out how much aid you should be given. Independent students are not necessarily guaranteed to get more federal student aid, but they do have higher limits.

Once you’ve used up your federal aid resources, turn to Sparrow if you need more money. Sparrow helps you access private student loans. You can get matched with what you pre-qualify for at 17+ lenders by filling out our form.

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