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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) allows you to apply for federal student aid to cover college expenses such as tuition, books, and housing. The U.S. government and many colleges use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for grants, loans, and work-study programs.
Completing the FAFSA is the first step for anyone pursuing higher education. Be sure to submit the FAFSA each year you’re in college – it typically only takes 30 minutes to complete once you have all the necessary information ready.
To start the FAFSA process, you must first create a Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID). This ID, comprised of a username and password, enables you to complete the form online and keep track of your financial aid information over time, including loan repayment information post-graduation. If you are a dependent student, your parent or guardian will require their own FSA ID. Visit StudentAid.gov for guidance on creating an FSA ID.
Before filling out the FAFSA, it is important to gather all necessary documents to streamline the form-filling process. Our FAFSA checklist indicates the required documents that should be readily available.
To speed up the application process and avoid mistakes, transfer your latest federal tax return information directly into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. When you reach the financial information section of the FAFSA, click “Link to IRS” to prefill the form with your information.
The FAFSA allows you to enter school codes for up to 10 schools. If you’re completing the form online, you can search for school codes within the online application. If you’re using a paper version, you can only list 4 schools. School codes are accessible on StudentAid.gov.
If you haven’t decided where you’re applying by Oct. 1, list the schools you think are possibilities and submit the FAFSA as soon as possible. If you change your mind, you can always update your FAFSA. All the schools you list on the application will automatically receive your FAFSA results electronically.
A few things to keep in mind:
1. You should add any school that you plan on applying to, or that you have applied to, even if you haven’t been accepted yet. In most cases, once a school accepts you, they will then work on developing your aid offer.
2. Schools will not be able to see which other schools you listed on your FAFSA form.
Certain states and colleges require their own scholarship or grant application, or another standardized form called the CSS/Financial Aid Profile. Once you’ve submitted the FAFSA, find out if your state or one of the colleges where you’re applying requires additional financial aid applications.
After submitting the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report either via email or postal mail within three days and three weeks. To view the report, log in to StudentAid.gov using your FSA ID and verify that there are no errors. If your FAFSA is incomplete, the report will indicate what needs to be done to complete it.
The report will also show your expected family contribution (EFC), which is an estimate of what your family can afford to pay for college. Colleges use your EFC to determine your eligibility for need-based aid. Although you may qualify for need-based aid, not all of it may be available due to limited funds. You may still receive non-need-based aid (also known as merit-based aid) if needed.
If you spot an error on your Student Aid Report, make the necessary corrections to your FAFSA promptly. You should also update the form if your dependency status changes or if you wish to add or remove a college. If you submitted your FAFSA electronically, you can update the form by logging into your account and selecting “Make FAFSA corrections.”
A certain percentage of FAFSA forms are subject to verification. You will be informed of the verification process either by the college’s financial aid office or the notification on your Student Aid Report. If you are selected for verification, it does not necessarily mean you made a mistake; some schools require that all students go through the process, while others verify a random group of students. The school conducting the verification process will request that you submit supporting documents confirming the information in your FAFSA.
After you’ve received your college acceptance letters, usually in the Spring, you’ll get a financial aid award letter from each school. Depending on your financial situation, the letter will include a mix of need-based and non-need-based federal and state aid and potentially aid from the college.
Remember, just being eligible for aid doesn’t mean you have to accept it. Start by accepting free money and work-study opportunities before taking out any loans, as they come with a cost. If you need to borrow, only take out what you truly need, not the maximum amount you’re eligible for.
More: Ultimate guide to figuring out your financial aid package.
If a significant change occurs in your or your family’s financial situation, such as job loss or increased medical expenses, your FAFSA may not reflect it. In this case, you may submit an appeal to the financial aid office at your college. The appeals process can vary from one campus to another, and there’s no guarantee that your appeal will result in more funding. However, if you have a compelling reason, it may be worth the effort to submit an appeal.
To receive financial aid, you must submit a FAFSA for each academic year. After you have submitted the FAFSA for the first time, you can complete a renewal FAFSA in the following years, which will have some questions pre-filled with information from prior forms. Ensure the renewal FAFSA is accurate before submission. In case of substantial changes to your financial status, you have the option to start with a fresh FAFSA application.
Sparrow recommends student loan payments consume no more than 10% of take-home pay. How much does that payment allow you to borrow?