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Your Starting Point: The FAFSA

It’s a mouthful, but important. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form required by U.S. colleges and universities to determine eligibility for need-based financial aid. It is available as an online form, an app, and in hard copy.

Every student should complete a FAFSA.

Even if you assume your family won’t get any “free money,” in the form of scholarships or grants, you must complete a FAFSA to apply for a Federal Student Loan. Many schools also require the FAFSA to be completed before they can offer their own award package.

There's no income cutoff to qualify for federal student aid. So, apply! Your eligibility will be determined by a mathematical formula, not by your parents' income or your savings alone.

Steps to completing the FAFSA for the first time:

  1. Create an FSA ID. When you create an ID, the government goes through a process to verify your identity, so this can take a couple of days. Be sure to request your FSA ID 2-3 days before you plan to start your FAFSA.
  2. Gather your social security number, your parents’ social security number(s), your driver’s license number, and other relevant documentation. Click here to see what is required.
  3. Set aside an hour to complete the FAFSA once you have everything in place. It may not take you this long, but buckle in just in case. You can start a FAFSA, save it, and return to it if needed. You don’t have to do it all at once but it’s a good idea to just get it done.
  4. Check for errors. After you complete the FAFSA, you will receive what is called a Student Aid Report that shows everything you input into the FAFSA. Check this for entry errors and submit corrections ASAP.
  5. Celebrate! You’ve now joined the legions of students who have done the FAFSA and lived to tell about it.


Q: Why do I have to fill out a FAFSA?

A: The FAFSA is how you apply for loans and grants from your federal and state governments. Most schools require you to fill out the FAFSA to ensure you receive the financial aid you are eligible for as well.

Q: What’s the deadline?

A: You can complete a FAFSA between October 1st and June 30th the year prior to enrollment. For example, you should fill out the FAFSA during the 2019-2020 year to apply for aid for the 2020-2021 school year. Additionally, some funds are available first-come, first-served (for example: federal work-study programs), so you’ll want to fill yours out ASAP. Each college and university has a FAFSA priority deadline. Research your perspective college or university online or check with the financial aid office to see the school's priority FAFSA deadline. The FAFSA for the 2020-2021 academic year can be submitted as early as October 1, 2019. Use your or your family’s income from the 2018 calendar year.

Check out these tips to learn more.

Q: What is an FSA ID? Where can I find mine?

A: The FSA ID is a Federal Student Aid Identification login and can serve as your legal signature. You will use this username and password to access your FAFSA application, student loan balance, and other financial aid tools. This will stick with you throughout your education, so be sure to keep this login in a safe spot. Retrieving lost or forgotten FSA IDs is a complicated process. Here is a resource to help if you’ve forgotten your FSA ID.

Q: Do I do the FAFSA every year?

A: Yes, the FAFSA needs to be filled out once for every year you are in school. If you completed a FAFSA last year, you can choose to submit a Renewal FAFSA that might pre-fill a few of the fields. This option could save your family time and effort.

Q: I don't qualify for grants, why would I still fill out the FAFSA?

A: The FAFSA does more than determine financial need for grants. The FAFSA helps schools determine a financial aid package for you, it qualifies you for federal loans, and it can open doors to some other payment options such as work study. Every family should fill out the FAFSA, regardless of parental income. Federal student loans usually have the lowest interest rates, the best repayment options, and forgiveness and cancellation options not offered by private lenders.

Q: What is EFC?

A: EFC stands for Expected Family Contribution. The FAFSA calculates this number based on the information your family provides about their income and savings (excluding retirement accounts). This number is how much the FAFSA assumes your family can contribute to your education in a given year (e.g., 2020-2021 school year).

Q: Is there a resource if I'm stuck filling out the FAFSA?

A: Yes, there are many resources available if you have questions about filling out the FAFSA. The federal government has done a great job of providing step-by-step guides during this process. Your school’s financial aid administrator (both high school and the college of your choice) also are willing to help. Want more information before you start? Check out the free FAFSA advice offered by Federal Student Aid.

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