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How to Complete Your FAFSA

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. That usually means starting with the FAFSA.

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.

Why do I need to complete the FAFSA?

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

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 financial aid, it’s important to fill out the form as there may be other options available for funding your education.

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When do I fill it out?

You need to complete a FAFSA for each year that you’ll be enrolled in school.

For consideration for federal student aid for the 2016-2017 award year—the award year spans July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017—you can complete the application between January 1, 2016, and midnight Central Time, June 30, 2017. You can submit updates and corrections by midnight Central Time, September 23, 2017. 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.

You will be able to file a 2017–18 FAFSA as early as Oct. 1, 2016. You can find more information about all deadlines related to the FAFSA on the Federal Student Aid website.

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?

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 U.S. Armed Forces
  • You are currently serving as active duty U.S. 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. You can read more detailed information 

Information Needed for Your FAFSA

Independent Students

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 to know your Social Security number, driver’s license number (if you have one), W-2s and your federal income tax returns. Bank statements and any investment records as well as an FSA ID that allows you to sign your FAFSA electronically. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you will also need your Alien Registration Number.

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.

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’s 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 schools. Read more here.

Dependent Students

Dependent students will need all of the same information as independent students, plus the same information for their parents or primary caregivers. The FAFSA is designed to provide an Estimated 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 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 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 will it take to complete it?

For 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.

Where do I fill all this out?

The easiest place to complete your FAFSA is online at, where you can create your own username and password.

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!

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