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10 steps to fill out the FAFSA

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

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 2020–2021 academic year: Saturday, June 30, 2021

Applications for the 2020-2021 academic year opened on October 1, 2019.

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 2020–2021 academic year.

Citizenship and financial statusDocuments
US citizen, dependent
  • Your Social Security card or number.
  • Your driver’s license, if you have one.
  • You and your parents’ previous year’s federal income tax returns.
  • You and your parents’ previous year’s W-2 forms.
  • Bank statements for you and your parents.
  • Records of you and your parents’ previous year’s untaxed income.
  • Your parent’s investment records and other business records.
US citizen, independent
  • Your Social Security card.
  • Your driver’s license, if you have one.
  • Your previous year’s federal income tax return.
  • Your previous year’s W-2 form.
  • Statements from bank accounts in your name.
  • Records of any untaxed income from previous year’s.
Not a US citizen, dependent
  • Your driver’s license, if you have one.
  • You and your parents’ previous year’s federal income tax returns.
  • Records of you and your parents’ untaxed income from previous year’s.
  • You and your parents’ previous year’s W-2 forms.
  • Statements from bank accounts in you and your parents’ names.
  • Records of your parent’s current business records.
Not a US citizen, independent
  • Your driver’s license, if you have one.
  • Your previous year’s federal income tax return.
  • Records of any 2016 untaxed income.
  • Your previous year’s W-2 form.
  • Current statements from bank accounts in your name.

How do I know if I’m a dependent?

The FAFSA asks applicants a series of questions to help you determine whether you’re a dependent. Congress sets these criteria, which are different from those used by the IRS. Generally, dependency depends on factors like age, marital status and the type of degree you’re working on.

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 if this is your first time around. If not, you can skip this step.

To create an ID, follow these steps:

  1. Go to the Federal Student Aid website.
  2. Select Create Account in the top navigation bar.
  3. Hit Get Started.
  4. Follow the instructions to provide your name and identifying information like your Social Security number.

If this is your first time completing your FAFSA, you’re good to go. It can take from one to three days for FSA to verify your information.

Parents of dependents must create an FSA ID to submit financial information about themselves. If they already created one for a sibling, they can keep use the same login details.

Make sure you and your parents are the only people using your passwords. According to the Department of Education, a common FAFSA misstep is when parents and students fill out the form using the wrong password.

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.

To start your FAFSA application, follow these steps:

  1. Hover over FAFSA: Applying for Aid in the top navigation bar and click Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.
  2. Log in to start the application. If you’re a student, select I am the student. Everyone else should select I am a parent, preparer, or student from a Freely Associated State. Enter your FAFSA login credentials, then click Next.
  3. Read the disclaimer and hit Accept.
  4. Select which type of FAFSA form you want to fill out:
    The 2020–2021 FAFSA form is for students who need financial aid between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021.
    The 2021–2022 FAFSA form, which will be available on October 1, 2020, is for students who want financial aid between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022.
  5. Make a save key — an important temporary password that you and your parents can use to log in to your application. It also allows to log back in and pick up where you left off, if you need to take a break.
  6. Review the introduction to make sure you have all of the documents needed to complete the FAFSA and know what to expect with the application process

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.

Be sure to record this information exactly how it appears on official documents. For example, even if everyone calls you Tony, write Anthony, if that’s your legal name. Click next to continue to the next 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.

You can enter up to 10 schools on your FAFSA form. If you’re applying to more than 10 schools, one strategy is to list your 10 most likely choices and revise them later, after you’ve further narrowed down your schools.

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.

If you answer yes to any of the questions below, you’re considered an independent student for the purposes of the FAFSA.

  • Will you be 24 or older by December 31st of the school year you need financial aid for?
  • Will you be working on a master’s or doctoral degree?
  • Are you married? Divorced? Separated?
  • Are you providing at least half of support costs for any children or other dependents that live with you?
  • Have your parents died since you turned 13?
  • Have you been in foster care or a ward or dependent of the court since you turned 13?
  • Are you an emancipated minor or in a court-appointed legal guardianship?
  • Are you a homeless unaccompanied youth or at risk of becoming homeless?
  • Are you currently serving in the US armed forces (excluding training)?
  • Are you a veteran?

Step 8. Answer questions on parent demographics.

Only dependent students are required to fill out this section, though independents also have the option.

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.

Which parent should I choose?

Determining which parent to choose can also be tricky. If your parents are still married or live together, both parents must complete this section. If they live separately, ask the parent you’ve stayed with more in the past year (or gives you the most financial support, if you haven’t stayed with either). If that parent has remarried, your stepparent must also complete the parent information on your FAFSA.

Your parents will enter personal and financial details like their birthday, marital status, household size and tax information.

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).

How to use the IRS DRT on the FAFSA

To use the IRS DRT, select that you’ve already completed your taxes. If you’re eligible, you’ll see a Link to IRS button at the bottom of the page. Once you’ve completed the transfer, you should receive a message confirming that it was a success.

In all fields the IRS can answer, you’ll see Transferred from the IRS. But give your form an eye for blank fields, filling out any required information the IRS wasn’t able to answer for you. You’ll also need to provide information about your personal assets — like your checking or savings account balance.

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.

Get your Student Aid Report (SAR)

Three days after you submit your application, FSA sends you an SAR containing all of the data you submitted in your application, excluding any tax information provided by the IRS. Now is your chance to carefully check it for any mistakes. You can fix any mistakes you find by logging back in to your application and saving your changes.

The one exception: Entering the wrong Social Security number. In this case, you might need to compete new FAFSA application. Otherwise, reach out to your school’s financial aid office and ask them to change your Social Security number for you.

If you have two to three weeks, you can update your Social Security number on your SAR, sign it and mail it back to SAR. Note that you can only take advantage of this option once.

Verify your information

Your SAR might say that you’re selected for verification, which the FSA requires randomly. If you’re selected, your school reaches out for documentation to back up your application. It’ll typically gives you a deadline to submit your documents before you lose eligibility for financial aid.

Change your information

While you can’t change most information on your FAFSA, you’re responsible for keeping your application as current as possible — particularly when that information affects your dependency status (like getting married), the number of family members in your household and those who are currently in college.

If you experience significant changes in your finances, you might want to reach out to your financial aid office to discuss potential steps. For everything else, log in with your FSA ID, go to the My FAFSA page and click Make FAFSA Corrections.

You can update your FAFSA by reaching out to your school’s financial aid office (only one school, if you listed multiple institutions) and asking them to make the changes for you. Otherwise, you can write in corrections by hand on a paper SAR and mail it in.

Receive your financial aid award letter

After your school receives your information, it sends you a financial aid award letter that explains how much funding you’re eligible to receive for that period. When you receive your award letter depends on when you apply and how your school’s financial aid office works. Typically, you’ll get it anywhere between the winter before your courses begin to just before you start classes — sometimes after, if you’re applying for the spring semester as a first-time student.

Select which type of aid you want to accept, starting with the financing options that you don’t have to pay off — grants, scholarships and work-study. When it comes to accepting loans, look at federal student loans before state or local government loans. Consider saving private student loans for when you’ve run out of federal funding.

If you think you should have been offered more aid, you can also write a financial aid appeal letter to ask the school to reconsider your package.

Why should I complete the FAFSA?

Many schools require you to fill out the FAFSA to be considered for any type of financial aid — but especially federal student aid. While it’s required to get a federal student loan, it can also cut down on your student debt by opening you up to scholarships, grants and work-study programs.

Complete your application as soon as you can after October 1. The sooner you submit the FAFSA, the more financial aid you might be eligible for, since some scholarships and grants are offered on a first-come-first-serve basis.

It can take less than an hour to fill out, though you might need to give yourself a couple of days if you don’t already have an FSA ID. It could also take additional time if you don’t have your documents together or can’t use the IRS data retrieval tool.

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

What to do if your parent or guardian won’t fill out the application

Submit your application by filing for a dependency override. Overrides are designed for students that aren’t able to ask their parents to complete the form due to abuse, neglect, incarceration or other special circumstances.

To qualify for a dependency override, you’ll have to provide documentation proving you’re eligible. Proof can include police reports, incarceration records, letters from social workers or teachers and more.

Do I need a cosigner if I’m a dependent?

Probably not. Federal loans generally don’t require a look at your credit history, so a cosigner isn’t necessary for you to qualify. The one exception is any type of PLUS loan, which does consider your credit history.

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.

Recent changes to FAFSA

The US Department of Education Federal Student Aid recently updated its process to enable students to submit their applications as early as October 1st — about 10 months ahead of the school year. Previously, students had to wait until January 1st to submit their applications.

Due to this change, the FAFSA asks families to report their income from two years before the year you need financial aid. You can report your “prior, prior” year income on the FAFSA by using the IRS Data Retrieval tool or entering it manually. So, when you complete your 2020–2021 FAFSA, you now have to provide income and tax information from 2018, rather than 2019 — as you might have a couple years ago.

How many questions are on the FAFSA?

The FAFSA application for the 2020-2021 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

What happens if I need a student loan?

If you’re eligible for a student loan, your school’s financial aid office will send loan documents directly or a link to sign your master promissory note. After you’ve signed and submitted your loan documents by the stated deadline, the government forwards to your school funds to pay your tuition and fees. You can collect any remaining funds from the financial aid office.

How much does it cost to apply to college?

College application costs vary depending on your household’s income and what additional services you use. If you qualify, you take your tests for free and get application fees waived. On the high end, it could cost over $4,000 including test prep and tutoring.

How much does it cost to apply to college?

Do I need to submit the FAFSA after the first year of college?

Yes, you need to submit the FAFSA each year you plan on attending school. You can check out our step-by-step guide to renewing the FAFSA for help. Or if you’re getting your master’s or doctoral degree, find out how to file the FAFSA for graduate school.

Can I add schools after I submit the FAFSA?

Yes, you can update your FAFSA application by logging in to the Federal Student Aid website with your FSA ID.

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

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