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FAFSA Guide

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, is your key to unlocking hundreds or thousands of dollars in aid to pay for college. If you’re a college-bound senior or a current college student, this guide is your one-stop-shop for all things FAFSA, including what to know, how to fill it out and how to troubleshoot common errors.

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What to know about the FAFSA

The FAFSA is the form that students need to fill out to apply for federal or state-based financial aid. The form uses your family's financial portfolio, including income, household size and total assets to determine your expected family contribution (EFC) — which in turn helps colleges assess how much financial need you have. The application is free and is not credit-based. 

Only U.S. citizens and eligible noncitizens may receive federal aid through the FAFSA, but DACA students can still fill out the form to potentially receive state or institution-specific aid. While most of the financial aid available from the government is need-based, unsubsidized federal student loans are offered to all borrowers, so students from all financial backgrounds should seek federal aid through the FAFSA. To remain eligible, students need to fill out the application every year.


Types of aid available through the FAFSA

By filling out the FAFSA, students gain access to potentially thousands of dollars through grants, student loans and more. 

Grants

Grants are a type of free money based on financial need. Federal and state grants are available through the FAFSA.


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    Most common federal grant is the Pell Grant

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    Grants are usually awarded based on financial need

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    State grants may have early or different deadlines

Work-study

Work-study is need-based federal financial aid that lets students work a part-time job while still enrolled in school.


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    Work-study is awarded based on financial need

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    Work is usually related to the student's major

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    Jobs pay at least the federal minimum wage

Student loans

Federal student loans can cover thousands of dollars in academic costs, but they must be repaid with interest.


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    Federal student loans have no credit score requirements

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    Some loans subsidize interest while student is enrolled

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    Amounts depend on loan type and grade level


Completing FAFSA if you have a nontraditional family

Filling out the FAFSA will look different depending on your family situation. It’s important to understand what information is required, based on your particular circumstance, to ensure that you get things right from the get-go. 


Completing the FAFSA

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What to know before filling out the FAFSA

FAFSA applications open on Oct. 1 for the upcoming academic year and close on June 30 of the academic year for that award. For instance, the 2022-23 FAFSA opened on Oct. 1, 2021 and closes on June 30, 2023. However, each state and school has its own deadline that you must adhere to. Although you’ll have plenty of time to fill it out, it’s always best to do it as soon as possible, since some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

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What to know while filling out the FAFSA

The FAFSA takes about 30 minutes to complete. To fill it out, you’ll need your FSA ID, Social Security number or Alien Registration Number, driver’s license and most recent federal tax information. If you’re a dependent student, you’ll also need your parents’ Social Security numbers and tax information. 

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What to expect after submitting the FAFSA

It can take anywhere from three to 10 business days for the U.S. Department of Education to process your FAFSA. Once that happens, the department will send both you and the schools listed on your application your Student Aid Report (SAR), which summarizes your application. If you need to make corrections, you can edit your information on the FAFSA website or by sending a written request by mail. Your actual award offers, including offers for loans or work-study, will be included in the financial aid award letters you receive from colleges when they send out acceptances.

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FAFSA basics

What to do if your federal aid runs short

Federal financial aid may not cover your entire cost of attendance, so it's not uncommon for students to turn to other resources when financing their higher education.
 
Even before getting results back from the FAFSA, you should actively apply to as many scholarships as you can. Many of these do not require financial need, and they can take a few hundreds or thousands of dollars off of your education bill even after federal aid rolls in.
 
Once you've exhausted all of those options, it may be a good idea to turn to private student loans. While these are typically considered a last resort for college funding — since they don't come with federal benefits and usually require a co-signer — they may be necessary. If your financial aid letter arrives and you don't have any way to pay for your education after scholarships, grants and federal student loans have been accounted for, compare interest rates from a few private lenders. While rates and terms change regularly, you can get a head start by researching lenders and getting a sense of how these loans work.


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INCOME BASED REPAYMENT

4.6

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

4.50- 14.83%

with AutoPay
Loan Amount

Cost of attendance minus aid

Term: 10-15 yr
Min. Credit

Not disclosed

Apply on partner site

4.7

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

4.99- 14.75%

with AutoPay
Loan Amount

$5k- $500k

Term: 5-15 yr
Min. Credit

640

Apply on partner site

4.1

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

3.65- 15.75%

with AutoPay
Loan Amount

$1k- $400k

Term: 5-20 yr
Min. Credit

Not disclosed

Apply on partner site

4.5

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

3.99- 14.96%

with AutoPay
Loan Amount

$1k- $500k

Term: 5-15 yr
Min. Credit

650

Apply on partner site

Income Based Repayment - No Cosigner Required

Get approved in minutes. Pre-qualify without affecting your credit score.

Apply on partner site

4.3

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

3.99- 12.78%

with AutoPay
Loan Amount

$1k- $350k

Term: 5-20 yr
Min. Credit

650

Apply on partner site

4.0

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

3.99- 10.32%

with AutoPay
Loan Amount

$1k- $500k

Term: 5-20 yr
Min. Credit

Not disclosed

Apply on partner site

BEST WITH CO-SIGNER

4.4

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

5.99- 12.90%

with AutoPay
Loan Amount

$1k- $350k

Term: 5-15 yr
Min. Credit

640

Apply on partner site

4.2

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

3.98- 11.99%

Loan Amount

$1k- $500k

Term: 5-15 yr
Min. Credit

680

Apply on partner site

4.5

Bankrate Score
Fixed APR From

4.62- 16.75%

Loan Amount

$2k- $200k

Term: 5-20 yr
Min. Credit

Not disclosed