10 steps to fill out the FAFSA

A step-by-step guide with pictures for filling out your federal student aid application.

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is notoriously time-consuming — as if applying for financial aid for the first time isn’t scary enough. But once you get started, you might be surprised to find it isn’t as much of a hassle as you’d expected.

These days, you can generally complete your entire application online in about 30 minutes online. We take you through each section to help you answer FAFSA questions and point out any roadblocks to avoid.

WATCH: How to fill out the FAFSA

Step 1. Know your deadline.

FAFSA deadline for the 2019–2020 academic year: Saturday, June 30, 2020

Applications for the 2019-2020 academic year opened on October 1, 2018

Be sure to find out if your school’s state has any specific due dates outside of the federal deadline. Don’t know which school you’re going to yet? Look at the deadlines for all schools you’re considering attending.

FAFSA deadlines by state and other important dates

Step 2. Get your documents together.

The documents you’ll need compete your FAFSA depend on your citizenship and financial independence. Here’s what to have on hand when applying for federal aid for the 2019–2020 academic year.

  • Step 3. Create an FSA ID.

    You know how much time you’ve have to submit your forms, and you’ve gathered the necessary documents. Now, you’re ready to start your application.

    Well, almost: You need to create a FSA ID before you can tackle the FAFSA questions.

  • Step 4. Start your application.

    Once you’re ready to start answering the FAFSA questions, go back to the Federal Student Aid website to finally get started on your application. You’ll need the student’s FAS ID for this step.

  • Step 5. Complete your demographic information.

    The first FAFSA questions are about your name, date of birth and other basic identifying information. If you’ve already submitted a FAFSA, it automatically completes this section.

  • Step 6. Select your schools.

    First-timers should select every school you’re considering attending — even if you haven’t gotten an acceptance letter or completed an application. This way, you’ll have your application in on time wherever you end up going. Other schools will simply ignore your FAFSA if you end up not attending.

  • Step 7. Answer questions about your dependency status.

    If you’re independent, you can skip ahead to Step 9. Otherwise, move on to Step 8.

  • Step 8. Answer questions on parent demographics.

    A parent or somebody who’s legally in charge of you must fill out this section — for example, your biological parents, stepparents or adoptive parents. If your parent passed away but your stepparent is alive, your stepparent is not considered your legal parent unless they’ve adopted you. Same goes for foster parents, legal guardians, older siblings, grandparents and other extended family.

  • Step 9. Fill out information on your finances.

    You and your parents need to upload information on your personal finances. But it’s not as complicated as you might think: FSA uses the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) that allows you to upload tax forms without having to get them yourself ahead of time. You’re eligible to use this tool if you’ve already submitted your taxes for the year (which is likely, given the new application dates).

  • Step 10. Sign and submit your FAFSA.

    You’re done answering the questions on the FAFSA. Now it’s time to electronically sign it, along with any supporting documents by logging in with your FSA ID. If you’re a dependent, your parents will also need to sign your FAFSA form by logging in with their individual FSA ID.

  • What happens after I submit my FAFSA?

    What happens after your FAFSA depends on the type of federal aid you’re applying for. After you submit your application, FAFSA shares your information with the schools you listed on the application, your state’s higher education agency and higher education agencies in the states of schools that you applied for.

  • 5 tips for saving time on the FAFSA

    1. Create your FSA ID ahead of time. It only takes about 15 minutes on your end and you can do it at any time. But it can take three days for the Social Security administration to verify your identity, which pushes your application back three days.
    2. Have your documents ready. Review our list of documents and have them at arm’s reach when you fill out the FAFSA so you don’t have to spend time trying to find your Social Security card.
    3. Get help if you need it. Some free organizations like College Goal Sunday can help you fill out the FAFSA for free if you’re confused or otherwise stuck.
    4. Let the IRS fill out the tax information. Using the IRS data retrieval tool can help you prevent mistakes on the FAFSA and also saves time on filling out the form.
    5. Review your answers. Mistakes can delay the process or get your form selected for verification — which takes extra time. Double-check to make sure everything is spelled correctly before you move on.

    9 expert tips for applying for financial aid

    Background information about the FAFSA

    The FAFSA is a financial aid application that all students must submit to qualify for federal aid. This aid includes grants, student loans, work-study programs and any other help that comes from the government. Colleges typically use your FAFSA to calculate your financial aid package for the year.

    Even if you don’t think you qualify for federal financial aid, you might want to complete your FAFSA anyhow. You could be eligible for something you didn’t expect, potentially lowering the cost of your education. For instance, nearly 60% of applicants who applied for federal aid in 2015–2016 qualified for a Pell Grant — a federal grant given to students based on financial need.

  • How many questions are on the FAFSA?

    The FAFSA application for the 2019-2020 school year has 108 questions, though you may not have to answer all of them depending on whether you qualify as a dependent or independent student. While this might seem overwhelming, knowing what information and documents you’ll need first can help. Check out the complete list of FASFA questions to make sure you have everything on hand before getting started.

    Bottom line

    The FAFSA is not nearly as complicated as it was back in the day, when the process required snail mail. You can ensure a smooth application by readying your documents and having the information you need on hand to complete your form.

    Because many states award aid first come, first served to students who qualify, submit your application as soon as you can.

    Want to learn about how student loans work after you’ve filled out the FAFSA? Read our comprehensive guide to student loans to get the basics on federal and private lending, paying off your debt and refinancing for more favorable rates and terms.

    Questions you might have about financial aid

    Images sourced from https://ifap.ed.gov/

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