Your FAFSA questions answered
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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, is how you apply for federal student aid and some state and institutional aid. Filling out the FAFSA can be a confusing process, and if you don’t fill it out correctly, you could forfeit your eligibility for financial aid. Here’s everything you need to know about the application before you fill it out.
The FAFSA is a free form that you fill out to apply for college financial aid, like grants, work-study and federal student loans. The application can be completed online or on paper, and it must be filled out every academic year you wish to receive financial aid. The application opens on Oct. 1 every year and stays open through June of the award year for which you’re seeking funding. For example, to apply for aid for the 2023-24 academic year, you can apply from October 2022 through June 2024.Unlike with private student loans, there are no credit requirements to apply — you just need to be enrolled in college at least half time and be in good academic standing to be eligible for most aid. The amount and type of aid you’ll receive is based on your economic need, or how much you or your parents are expected to financially contribute to your college costs.
If you want federal financial aid, you need to fill out the FAFSA, and you may also need to fill it out to earn some state or college aid. Even some private scholarships require a completed FAFSA form if they’re need-based.Because the FAFSA is free, it’s almost always a good idea to fill it out every year; while it does take some time, you might be surprised by the aid options available to you.
Through the FAFSA, you can receive federal work-study, federal grants and federal student loans. It may also open up state-based grants or college-specific scholarships. If you qualify for any need-based federal aid based on your FAFSA information, your school will let you know in your financial aid offer letter.
Filling out the FAFSA
There are three FAFSA deadlines: federal, state and college.
- Federal: The federal FAFSA deadline is June 30 of the award year for which you need funding. For the 2023-24 award year, the deadline is June 30, 2024, although you’ll have until Sept. 14, 2024 to submit any permissible corrections.
- State: Each state has its own FAFSA deadline. The Federal Student Aid website lists each state’s individual deadline, some of which are as early as a few months after the application opens.
- College: Each college has its own FAFSA deadline. Check with your school’s financial aid office or your school counselor to make sure that you stay on track.
Even though the FAFSA stays open for over a year, it’s best not to wait for the deadline. Some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so the earlier you apply, the better your chances of qualifying for free funding like grants. A rule of thumb is to apply as soon as possible after Oct. 1.
The FAFSA asks for your personal information, your financial information, your family’s financial information (if filing as a dependent), your household information and what schools you want to send your FAFSA to.Some questions to expect are:
- What is the highest level of school completed by your parents?
- What college degree or certificate will you be working on when you begin the 2023-24 school year?
- How much did you earn from working in 2021?
- As of today, what is your parents’ total current balance of cash, savings and checking accounts?
Here are some of the documents you need to have on hand when filling out the FAFSA:
- Your Social Security number.
- Your parents’ Social Security numbers (if filing as a dependent).
- Your driver’s license.
- Your Alien Registration Number (if not a citizen).
- Your most recent federal tax information (W-2s, Form 1040s, foreign/U.S. territory tax returns).
- Records of untaxed income.
It will take about 10 minutes to create an FSA ID (the ID that you need to fill out the FAFSA online), and it typically takes under an hour to complete the application. If you’re renewing your FAFSA for subsequent funding years, it can take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.
Your dependency status will be determined as you fill out the form. These are some of the questions that will be used to determine your status:
- Will you be 24 years or older by Jan. 1 of the school year for which you’re applying for aid?
- Are you married or separated but not divorced?
- After you turned 13, were both of your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a ward or dependent of the court?
- Are you an emancipated minor?
- Do you have children that receive more than half of their support from you?
If you answer “yes” to any of these, then you may qualify as an independent student, which means you could be eligible for additional financial aid. To see the full list of questions, check out the Federal Student Aid website.
There are no income limits to fill out the FAFSA. That being said, how much financial aid you receive will be determined by your expected family contribution (EFC) or Student Aid Index (SAI), which is a formula that calculates how much you or your parents can contribute to your college costs based on their financial information.
Although you won’t be eligible for federal student aid as a DACA student, you should still fill out the FAFSA, as it can be used to determine your eligibility for state or institutional aid. However, to fill out the FAFSA as a DACA student, you’ll need to have a Social Security number.If you’re a dependent student and your parents don’t have a Social Security number, simply put “000-00-0000” when asked that question.
If your parents are divorced or separated and living apart, you’ll answer all parental questions using the information of the parent which you’ve lived the most with during the past 12 months. If your parents have equal custody, put the information of whichever parent supports you the most financially.If your parents are divorced or separated but living under the same roof, you’ll mark “unmarried and both legal parents living together” when asked about their marital status. Then provide both parents’ information.
If you’re a dependent student, you’ll need your parents’ financial information for the Department of Education to calculate your EFC or SAI, which determines your financial need. Omitting this information means you’ll lose access to grants and other forms of need-based aid, although you may still qualify for unsubsidized federal student loans. In rare cases — for instance, if your parent is missing and you’re unable to contact them — you may be able to file for a dependency override to apply as an independent student.
After filling out the FAFSA
It can take anywhere from three to five days for the Department of Education to process your FAFSA if you applied online and seven to 10 days if you applied on paper.After processing your application, the Department of Education will send you a summary of your FAFSA, known as your Student Aid Report (SAR). This SAR is then sent to the colleges you listed on your FAFSA. The colleges will use this information to calculate your financial aid package, which is typically released to you when application decisions are made.
If you make a mistake on your FAFSA, you can either mail in written corrections on your paper SAR or edit your information on the FAFSA website. However, the information you can change is limited; you may change your contact information or your dependency status, but you cannot change your financial information in most cases. There’s also a deadline to submit corrections. For the 2023-24 award year, you’ll have until Sept. 14, 2024, to make any changes.If your parents’ financial situation changes dramatically, you gain or lose a member of your household or you get married, you’ll need to speak to the financial aid office of the school you plan to attend to see if it can make changes for you.
Yes, you need to reapply for the FAFSA every year you need funding. If you don’t reapply, you won’t be eligible for federal aid for the upcoming academic year. The good news is that renewing your FAFSA takes less time than initially applying, since some information from the previous year is automatically prefilled.