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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 applying.

FAFSA basics

What is the FAFSA?

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 2022-23 academic year, you can apply from October 2021 through June 2023.

Unlike private student loans, there are no credit requirements to apply, and the amount and type of aid you’ll receive is based on how much you or your parents are expected to financially contribute to your college costs.

Do I need to fill out the FAFSA?

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.

What financial aid can you get with the FAFSA?

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

When is the FAFSA due?

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 2022-23 award year, the deadline is June 30, 2023.
  • 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 limited, 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.

What questions are asked on the FAFSA?

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 2022-23 school year?
  • How much did you earn from working in 2020?
  • As of today, what is your parents’ total current balance of cash, savings and checking accounts?

What documents do I need to submit the FAFSA?

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.

How long does the FAFSA take?

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.

After filling out the FAFSA

How long does it take to hear back from 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.

What if I make a mistake on my FAFSA?

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.

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.

Do I need to reapply for the FAFSA every year?

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.

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Written by
Hanneh Bareham
Student loans reporter
Hanneh Bareham specializes in everything related to student loans and helping you finance your next educational endeavor. She aims to help others reach their collegiate and financial goals through making student loans easier to understand.
Edited by
Student loans editor