Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step to receiving financial aid for higher education. Your application determines your eligibility for federal financial aid programs like federal student loans—and it might even help you qualify for additional financial assistance through your state or school.
Whether you’re planning to pay for college yourself or you’re a family member helping to cover costs, applying for the FAFSA is important. The process may seem overwhelming at first, but this guide breaks down each step.
What Is the FAFSA?
The United States Department of Education uses the FAFSA to decide whether you’re eligible for federal financial aid programs and how much aid you should receive.
Filling out your FAFSA is necessary for various federal financial aid programs like Pell Grants, Federal Work-Study and federal student loans. Many states and schools also use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for their own aid programs, including grants, scholarships and other forms of assistance. While these awards might be based on achievements or other qualifications, rather than financial need, the FAFSA may be required to apply.
After you fill out the FAFSA, you can access federal student loans. These loans typically have lower interest rates and more favorable terms compared with private student loans. Additionally, these loans may be subsidized, meaning the government pays the interest while you’re in school. Most have income-driven repayment options, too, making them more affordable in the long run.
How Is Financial Aid Determined by FAFSA?
The FAFSA assesses a family’s financial situation to determine their Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is used to find out how much aid a student needs based on their family’s income. This, in turn, determines the amount of aid you may receive and helps make sure that limited financial resources are directed to those who need them most.
The FAFSA results also provide information to students about the amount of aid they qualify for. This allows students to make informed decisions about their education and financing options while they plan for college.
Can Your FAFSA Application Be Denied?
The FAFSA itself cannot be denied, like a credit card application might be denied. Instead, the FAFSA collects information about your financial situation and calculates your EFC. Your eligibility for specific types of aid or the amount of aid you receive can vary depending on your EFC and other factors, such as your college’s cost of attendance.
If your EFC is too high, this means your family is expected to contribute a significant amount toward your education. You might not qualify for certain need-based aid programs like the Pell Grant. However, you may be eligible for unsubsidized federal student loans or other forms of aid.
In some situations, you may be able to appeal your EFC for reasons like sudden job loss, disability or other circumstances. If you have concerns about your FAFSA results or eligibility for financial aid, contact your school’s financial aid office.
When Is the FAFSA Due?
Typically, the FAFSA application opens on Oct. 1 of the year before you attend college. So, if you’re heading to college in the fall of 2024, you can apply for FAFSA starting Oct. 1, 2023.
Note: For the 2024–2025 school year, the application will open in December 2023.
Students have until June 30 of that academic year to apply. For example, if you’re filling out the FAFSA for the 2024-2025 school year, the application deadline is June 30, 2024.
It’s important to apply early, even if you haven’t applied to or been accepted to any schools. Some programs have limited funding, so they operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Missing deadlines can result in missing opportunities for financial aid. You can maximize the amount of aid you receive by completing the FAFSA as early as possible.
What You Need to Apply to FAFSA
Before you apply, you’ll need to gather documentation. If you’re a dependent student, you’ll also need to gather this information for your parents—even if they don’t plan to help you pay for college.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Social Security number (SSN) or Alien Registration number, if you’re not a U.S. citizen
- Federal income tax returns, W-2 forms and other records of money earned
- Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
- Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
- An FSA ID
- A list of colleges and universities where you plan to submit applications
Once you gather everything you need, the application process should only take about half an hour.
How To Get an FSA ID
An FSA ID, or Federal Student Aid Identification, is a username and password that serve as your electronic signature for U.S. Department of Education websites. Students and parents must have an FSA ID if they need to access and sign electronic federal student aid documents, apply for federal student aid or manage their existing federal student loans.
Each individual applying for federal student aid should have their own unique FSA ID. In other words, parents will need one, too. Sharing FSA IDs is not recommended. This can lead to complications and security issues.
Go to the FSA ID website
Visit the official Federal Student Aid website at studentaid.gov.
Create an FSA ID
Click on the "Create Account" button.
Provide your personal information
You’ll be guided through a series of steps where you need to provide the following information:
- Full name
- Date of birth
- Email address
- Strong password
- Challenge questions
The email address you use will be your username. It’s also the primary way the Department of Education will communicate with you about your FSA ID and financial aid. Use an address that you check frequently. The challenge questions will be used to help verify your identify if you forget your username or password.
Verify your email address
Read and accept the terms and conditions for using the FSA ID.
Start using your FSA ID
Once you’ve successfully completed the steps and verified your email address, your FSA ID is created, and you can start using it immediately. Parents should then create their own FSA ID. Keep your FSA ID information secure and don’t share it with anyone.
A Step-by-Step Guide To Applying for the FAFSA
Now that you have your FSA ID, you’re ready to apply for the FAFSA.
Access the FAFSA website
Go to the official FAFSA application website. Be cautious of other websites that may charge fees to submit the FAFSA. The official website is free and will never ask for your credit card information.
Start a new application
Click on the “Start Here” button and select “New FAFSA.” If you have previously started a FAFSA and need to continue or make corrections, choose “Log In” instead.
Complete the FAFSA sections
The FAFSA consists of several sections. Here’s how to complete them:
- Student information. This includes your full legal name, Social Security or Alien Registration number, date of birth and contact information. Review this carefully to make sure it’s accurate.
- School selection. In this section, you’ll add the colleges or universities you want to receive your FAFSA information. You can list up to 10 schools at a time. Use the official Federal School Code Lookup tool provided on the FAFSA website to find the school codes for colleges you plan to apply to.
- Dependency status. The FAFSA will ask a series of questions to determine your dependency status. Depending on the answers, the student may be classified as either dependent or independent for financial aid purposes. Independent students typically don’t need to provide parental information on the FAFSA.
- Parent demographics (if applicable). If you’re classified as dependent, you’ll need to provide parental information. This includes the parent’s Social Security number, date of birth and demographic details. If your parents are married, provide information for both parents. If they’re divorced or separated, provide information for the parent you’ve lived with the most during the past 12 months. If your primary parent has remarried, you may also need to provide information about your stepparent.
- Financial information. The FAFSA typically asks for the prior year’s tax information. For example, if you’re filling out the FAFSA for the 2023–2024 academic year, you’ll use tax information from 2022. You can either manually enter the financial data from your tax returns or use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. This allows you to import your tax information directly from the IRS website and can help reduce errors and verification requests.
Review and confirm
Review the FAFSA summary to ensure all information is accurate and complete. Make any necessary corrections, since errors or discrepancies could affect your eligibility for financial aid. Before submitting the FAFSA, both the student and at least one parent (if dependent) must sign it using their FSA IDs. The FSA ID serves as your electronic signature.
Submit the FAFSA
Once you’ve reviewed and confirmed everything is accurate, submit the FAFSA. You’ll receive a confirmation page indicating that your FAFSA has been successfully submitted. Save or print this page for your records.
What To Do After Applying for FAFSA
Congratulations, you’ve finished submitting the FAFSA! However, there are a few more steps to ensure you receive all the financial aid you’re eligible for.
- Review the SAR. After submitting the FAFSA, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). Review it carefully to make sure all your information is accurate. The SAR will include your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is used by colleges to determine your eligibility for financial aid. If you find errors or need to update information on your SAR, you can make corrections online.
- College or university follow-up. Each college or university you listed on your FAFSA will receive your financial information. They may request additional documentation or information to verify your eligibility for financial aid. Respond to these requests promptly to avoid delays in processing your aid. You can also add or remove colleges from your FAFSA, if needed.
- State and college financial aid. Some states and colleges have their own financial aid programs with separate applications and deadlines. Check with your state’s higher education agency and the financial aid offices of the colleges you’re interested in for their applications.
- Find scholarships. In addition to federal and state aid, seek out scholarships and grants from private organizations, foundations and community groups. These can provide additional funding for your education.
- Consider private loans. Federal and state aid, scholarships and grants may not be enough to cover your educational expenses. You may need to explore other funding options, such as private student loans. These work separately from any federal loans you’re eligible for. Be sure to review the terms and responsibilities associated with these loans.
- Keep track of deadlines. Stay aware of financial aid deadlines for the colleges you’re applying to and any other aid programs you're interested in.
How Often Do You Need To Renew the FAFSA?
Many forms of financial aid, including federal aid, require students to renew the FAFSA every year. Keeping your FAFSA up-to-date ensures that you can continue to receive financial support throughout your college years. To ensure you don’t miss an application opening date, set a calendar reminder at the beginning of each school year.
FAFSA Is Just One Way To Prepare for College
Remember that federal student aid is just one way to pay for college. There are many other financing options for higher education, including savings, scholarships and private student loans. Make sure you and your family plan ahead for college to ensure you can pay for your education journey.
This content is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.