On Oct. 1, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens for students seeking financial aid for the 2023-24 school year. Completing your FAFSA each year puts you in the running for grants, federal student loans and work-study opportunities that can help offset out-of-pocket college costs.

If you’ll be heading to school for the first time or returning for another year of classes during the 2023-24 school year, here’s what you need to know about completing the FAFSA.

When is the FAFSA deadline?

The federal deadline for the 2023-24 FAFSA submission is 11:59 p.m. Central Time on June 30, 2024. But states and colleges may also have their own FAFSA deadlines, some of which are as early as January 2023. Many states encourage you to fill out your FAFSA as soon as possible after Oct. 1.

Should you file the FAFSA early?

The sooner you complete the FAFSA, the better. Grants and scholarships are limited, and some are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis — so if you wait too long to apply, those funds could run out and your options for financial aid will be more limited.

Getting in your application as soon as possible is also a good idea even if you’re undecided. “The earlier you complete the FAFSA, the earlier you’ll get your financial aid award letters so you’ll have more time to compare school offers and make an informed decision,” says Kat Tretina, a certified student loan counselor based in Florida.

What happens if I don’t file the FAFSA?

If you miss the FAFSA deadline, you lose your chance to apply for federal student aid that year; there is no way to apply late. Once you miss the deadline, your only options for student aid are private grants and scholarships or private student loans.

If you have questions about the FAFSA form — such as how to determine your dependency status and what assets to include in your net worth — you might want to wait and ask for help, since submitting the wrong information could impact your eligibility. There are “Help” buttons throughout the FAFSA application, or you can contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center or your school’s financial aid office to ask questions. Just don’t wait too long, or you risk missing out on more limited grant or scholarship funding.

It’s worth noting that completing the FAFSA isn’t required to go to school. However, the application is free, and although answering the questions can be monotonous, investing the time may be worth a shot at getting aid to offset your out-of-pocket costs. Some people don’t apply because they don’t feel like they will receive any money, but don’t take yourself out of the running. Almost everyone who fills out the FAFSA receives some sort of financial aid.

How to prepare for the FAFSA application

Before applying, brush up on the FAFSA requirements to make sure that you qualify. For instance, having defaulted on federal student loans might make you ineligible for aid.

You should also gather all of the information and documents you need for the application. Here’s what to have on hand:

  • Your Social Security number or Alien Registration Number.
  • Federal income tax returns and W-2s to show how much money you earn.
  • Records of nontaxable income, such as child support and veterans benefits.
  • Financial statements, including bank statements and investment records.

If you’re a dependent, you’ll need to provide the above information for your parents as well. Try to get all of the information together beforehand so you can finish the application in one sitting.

Applying for the FAFSA

There are a few basic steps in filling out the FAFSA.

1. Set up your FSA ID

To start the application online, you need to set up an FSA ID for yourself and have your parents set up their own if you’re a dependent student. The FSA ID is used to log in to your application and electronically sign the application when you’re ready to submit it.

You’ll need your Social Security number, full name, date of birth and email address or phone number to create your FSA ID. Only one FSA ID can be tied to any given email, so you and your parents must use separate email addresses to create your individual IDs.

If you’re a student returning to the application, you can put in the FSA ID from last year and hit “FAFSA renewal.” This will pull some of the information from last year’s application.

2. Add your personal information and schools

The personal information section will ask for your Social Security number, birthdate and driver’s license. There’s also a school section, where you can add up to 10 schools where you want the FAFSA information to be sent.

If you’re unsure which schools you want to apply for, don’t worry; you can make changes to this list later. Also consider putting at least one state school on the list.

“If you aren’t happy with your aid packages, state schools and community colleges are much cheaper with in-state tuition, so it’s always good to have that option,” says Charlie Javice, founder of Frank, a startup that helps students complete the FAFSA application process.

Some states require that a state school be at the top of the list for you to be considered for state aid, so take the time to check your state’s guidelines.

3. Enter the financials

Next on the application is inputting the financial information that will be used to determine your aid eligibility. For the 2023-24 year, you will input financial information for the 2021 tax year. To make your life a bit easier, you may be able to add financial information from your tax return to the FAFSA application using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

4. Submit the FAFSA

You can apply by paper using the printable PDF version of the FAFSA, through the myStudentAid mobile app or on the Federal Student Aid website. After submitting the application online, look out for a confirmation screen to verify completion.

What’s new about the FAFSA for 2023-24?

In December 2020, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which brought additional changes to the FAFSA Simplification Act. These include the following:

  • Reducing the number of questions in the FAFSA from 108 to a maximum of 36. The reduced number of questions will also make it easier for students in foster care or experiencing homelessness to fill out their application.
  • The expected family contribution (EFC), which determines your eligibility to receive federal financial aid based on your household income and cost of attendance, will now be called the Student Aid Index (SAI). An applicant’s SAI can also now be as low as -$1,500.
  • Incarcerated students and those with drug-related convictions will now be eligible to receive federal financial aid, including the Pell Grant.
  • Male applicants won’t be required to register for Selective Service before the age of 26 in order to receive federal aid.
  • Students who weren’t able to complete their degrees because their schools closed or who had to file for borrower defense due to being defrauded by their institutions will get their lifetime Pell Grant eligibility restored.
  • Students will now be able to see if they qualify for the Pell Grant by providing details about their income and family size before they fill out the FAFSA.
  • The department will revamp how income protection allowance is calculated, so that a bigger portion of students’ household income remains untouched. This, in turn, will benefit low- and middle-income households, as it will lower how much they’re expected to contribute toward college costs.

When do you find out about the FAFSA?

It takes three to five days to process your online application and seven to 10 days to process a paper application. After the application is processed, you’ll get a Student Aid Report (SAR), which outlines your expected family contribution (or Student Aid Index, with the most recent changes). This information is sent to the schools on your list, and they will then use this to calculate how much aid they will give you. Once they create your financial aid package, they will send you an electronic or paper offer – usually sometime in the spring.

What if you don’t get enough aid?

If you don’t get the amount of aid you were hoping for, you can file an appeal and negotiate your aid package, according to Javice. If there’s been a change to your finances since you filed taxes for 2021 — perhaps you or your parents lost a job because of the pandemic — you can request that the school revisit the offer to account for your current financial situation.

If you got a better aid award at your “second choice” school, you could even ask your top choice to match it. Besides negotiating your aid, you can apply for other scholarships and grants.

Javice also recommends considering community college to obtain credits that you can transfer to a four-year school if you don’t get enough award money. These credits could cost a fraction of the price and put you on the path to obtaining the same degree.

However, if these options are not viable, you can also consider taking out private student loans. Although these loans lack access federal benefits like income-driven repayment plans and forgiveness, they could be an option to bridge the financial gap. Just keep in mind that to qualify, you’ll need excellent credit and a stable source of income or a co-signer who meets these requirements.

The bottom line

There are a lot of decisions to make when it comes to college. Where should you go? And, most importantly, how are you going to pay for it all? Submitting your FAFSA application right away can get you financial aid offers sooner than later so you can compare options and figure out how to bridge the financial gap if the award money isn’t enough to cover the cost.