EDITORS NOTE: This is part two of a two part series on financial aid for college. Click here to read part one about applying for scholarships.
High school seniors considering attending a post-secondary education institution should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as soon as they can to make sure they have the best chance of getting as much financial aid as possible.
The FAFSA is used to determine eligibility for need-based grants, loans and work-study as well as non-need-based federal student loans.
Students can begin filling out their FAFSA as soon as Oct. 1 for the following school year. Many colleges and universities also have their own priority filing deadlines for the FAFSA that students should be aware of for the colleges they are considering applying to or are attending.
Those priority deadlines have to do with the availability of funds. Some schools have grants, scholarships and/or work-study that have limited amounts of funds and are first-come, first-served based on the date that the FAFSA was received.
The FAFSA must be completed online either using a computer or mobile device. It’s recommended that if a student is using a mobile device they should download the app to complete the application.
But the first thing a student should do before starting their FAFSA application is to create a Federal Student Aid ID, which will allow the student to sign their FAFSA electronically. If the student is considered a dependent, their parents or guardians will also need to create an FSA ID as well. These can be created by visiting fsaid.ed.gov. Be sure to write down the username and password as you will need it each time you fill out the FAFSA as well as when it comes time to repay any federal student loans acquired.
If the student’s parents are divorced and live separately, only the parent who supports the student the most will need an FSA ID and the student will only need that parent’s income information for the FAFSA application. Students are asked to wait one to three days for the FSA ID information to be verified before filling out their FAFSA.
Once a student has created an FSA ID, they can begin filling out their FAFSA by visiting fafsa.gov. Documents and information needed to complete the FAFSA include:
Social Security number or alien registration number if they are not U.S. citizens.
Federal income tax returns and W-2 forms for 2019 if filling out FAFSA for 2021-22 school year.
Bank statements and records of investments, if applicable.
Records of untaxed income, if applicable.
Students will need these documents for their parents or guardians if they are considered a dependent or spouse if they are married. Students do have the option of using the FAFSA’s IRS Retrieval Tool so they don’t have to manually input their or their parents’ federal income tax information.
If students prefer, the U.S. Department of Education has a FAFSA demo website so students can practice going through the process of filling the online form out before filling out their official application. The demo page can be found at fafsademo.test.ed.gov/webdemo.htm.
Once a student has signed and submitted their FAFSA application the confirmation page will tell a student if they are eligible for the Pell Grant and federal student loans. It will also show the student’s expected family contribution as well as some statistics about the colleges/universities they listed.
Tips for FAFSA application
Do not use your school email address as it will get disabled once you graduate. Use a personal email. If you don’t have one, create one.
Before starting the application process, allow pop-ups, have your cookies enabled and make sure the browser you are using is up to date.
Students who have taken post-secondary education opportunity classes should select “Never attended college/1st yr” when answering “What will your college grade level be when you begin the 2021-2022 school year?”
Men must be registered for the selective service to receive financial aid. Men will be given the opportunity to do so while filling out their FAFSA if they have not done so yet.
The FAFSA requires a gender identification, but only has "male" or "female" as options.
Students can add up to 10 colleges to send their FAFSA information to. If a student wants to send it to more than 10 colleges, they should wait at least three days after submitting their application and then go back into their account and edit their application then delete schools and add more schools before submitting their application again.
If a student is unable to provide their parents' or guardians' information, they will be taken down a different path in the application process and schools will typically reach out to the student to ask why after receiving the student’s application.
Though a parent or guardian may have had a job with income in 2019, the FAFSA will also ask if the parent or guardian recently lost their job, which may be the case due to COVID-19.
If a parent or guardian pays or receives child support, the student will need that information as well.