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How to Fill Out the FAFSA: A Guide to Filing the FAFSA for Students and Parents

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Congratulations! You have decided to go to college or a graduate program. Now, one of your first steps is to research every option you have for financial aid, no matter how you’re planning to pay for your education. Your first step to learning about your financial aid options is to fill out the FAFSA form and file it.

While you may be familiar with the term FAFSA — it’s an acronym that stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid — this article will provide you with more information about filing deadlines and recommendations for filling out this important federal aid request.

What is the FAFSA?

Anyone who is pursuing a college or graduate education will want to file FAFSA forms. Your FAFSA application provides the federal government and financial aid offices with the information that it needs to determine the amount of money you — and your expected family contribution if you’re considered a dependent — can afford to pay out of pocket for your education, and how much you’re eligible to receive from school aid programs.

The form and the information you provide will help decide whether you’ll receive a grant, work-study options, and the kinds of federal student loans you’re eligible to use. Even if you feel as though you or your family make too much money to be approved for a financial aid award, it’s important to fill out the form as there may be other options available for funding your education.

When is the FAFSA Deadline?

If you are currently in high school, this is the first time you will need to file your FAFSA. However, you will also need to complete a FAFSA for each academic year that you’ll be enrolled in school. It’s best to fill out your FAFSA as early in the year as possible as there are additional state grants that you may be eligible for that have earlier deadlines.

Academic Year FAFSA Open Date Federal FAFSA Deadline
2021-2022 October 1, 2020 June 30, 2022
2022-2023 October 1, 2021 June 30, 2023

If you have already filled out a state student aid form, it’s important to note that you must still fill out the federal form in order to be eligible for federal aid. If you’re mailing in your form information, it must be received by that date so allow plenty of time for mailing.

What Is the Difference Between Dependent and Independent Students in FAFSA?

Simply put, students are classified as either dependent or independent of the level of access a student has to their parent’s financial resources. You must meet at least one of these criteria to be considered an independent student:

  • You are working on an advanced degree such as a master’s or doctorate
  • You have a child who is a legal dependent, and you provide more than half their financial support
  • You are 24 years of age
  • You are a veteran of the US Armed Forces
  • You are currently serving as active duty US military
  • You have been emancipated by a judge as independent after the age of 13
  • You have been in foster care, lost both parents or were a ward of the court
  • You are married or separated (but not divorced)

If you do not meet at least one of these qualifications, then you will be considered a dependent student for the purposes of federal student aid.

Information Needed to File Your FAFSA

To make filing the FAFSA faster, make sure you have all the information you need before getting started.

Information needed for independent students filing FAFSA

Nearly all graduate students are considered independent students for matters related to the FAFSA (see the list above). In order to complete the application, you will need:

  • Your Alien Registration Number if you are not a US citizen
  • Social Security number
  • Driver’s license number (if you have one)
  • W-2s, your federal income tax returns, and other tax information
  • Bank statements and any investment records
  • An FSA ID that allows you to sign your FAFSA electronically

No matter your citizenship status, you will also need a list of up to 10 schools that you are considering (even before applying or being accepted), as they will receive your FAFSA results automatically.

How to list your colleges on your FAFSA form

In your FAFSA you will be asked to list the schools that you would like to review your financial aid application for a financial aid package. There is some strategy for the order in which you list the schools you are considering on your FAFSA—you might consider listing the school codes with the earliest financial aid deadlines first. If you are applying to more than 10 schools, you will need to wait for confirmation that the first 10 schools have received your application (and you receive your Student Aid Report or SAR) and then update your application with the additional school codes.

Information needed for dependent students filing FAFSA

Dependent students will need all of the same information as independent students, plus the same personal and financial information for their parents or primary caregivers. The FAFSA is designed to provide an expected family contribution (EFC) figure to the government. To get an idea of what that figure will be before completing the application, you can use an EFC calculator.

How is Your FAFSA Information Used?

The government’s privacy policy notes that your FAFSA information can be provided to other federal agencies in order to match your profile with potential financial aid. Details are also provided to your state’s government, which provides you with the opportunity to receive state aid, often without a separate application. In general, any information that you share is kept within government systems and is mostly used for verification purposes.

How Long Does It Take to Fill Out the FAFSA Application?

For high school students and other first-timers, completing your FAFSA should take slightly less than an hour, and you’ll want to set some additional time for a thorough review. When you apply the following year, it will be faster as you’re updating information rather than creating a full application from scratch.

How Do I Apply For FAFSA?

The easiest place to complete your FAFSA is online at the Federal Student Aid website where you can create your own username and password.

New myStudentAid mobile app for filing FAFSA

2020-21 and 2021-22 FAFSA forms are available for students and parents through an app on your phone; the myStudentAid Mobile App.

Download the myStudentAid app in the Apple App Store (iOS) or Google Play (Android). 

Filing FAFSA by mail

However, if you don’t want to use the online application there are other filing options available including the option to download, print and fill out an FAFSA form. Also, you can request that a paper form is mailed to you by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID or 319-3347-5665. Dial 1-800-730-8913 if you are hearing impaired to access the same options.

Paper forms must be mailed back to the government in order to be accepted and this can affect processing time, so plan ahead!

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.