This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
How to Apply for Financial Aid with the FAFSA
To apply for financial aid, you should start by filling out the FAFSA. First, and most importantly, the FAFSA is free to fill out; you should never pay someone to fill it out for you.
Here are 10 steps to help you remain organized when applying for financial aid:
1) Starting on or after Jan. 1 of every year, the next academic year’s FAFSA is available. Here’s a list of the forms you will need to fill out the FAFSA, and make sure you have them before you start!
- In most circumstances, if you are under 24, you are considered dependent for financial aid purposes. This means that you will need your parents’ federal tax returns to fill out the FAFSA. Acceptable returns include the 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ. You also will need their W2s. If your parents didn’t work, you may want to ask them for another form of income documentation that may help you fill out the FAFSA.
- If you worked, or you are over 24, you will need your own tax return and W2 forms.
- You need your Social Security number and the Social Security number of your parents if you are under 24. If you do not have a Social Security number but you have an alien registration or permanent resident card, you may use that. To receive federal financial aid you must be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen. Learn what financial aid options are open to you if you don’t fall into either of these categories here.
- Other forms that you will need if these situations apply to you: untaxed income records; current bank statements; current business and investment mortgage information; business and farm records; or stock, bond and other investment records.
IMPORTANT: If you or your parents haven’t completed your taxes yet, that’s OK. You can use tax forms from the previous year, and just update your FAFSA later. But if you can, you should try and get your taxes done early so you can easily fill out the form without having to update later!“You have to apply for financial aid every academic year you plan to enroll in school.”
2) Navigate to http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/, which is the website for the FAFSA. If you haven’t already done so, you will need to create a profile under “Start a New FAFSA.” If you need to make changes or complete your application at a later time, you will be able to retrieve it using your profile. Your profile also will help save you some time when you have to reapply for financial aid the next year you are in college.
IMPORTANT: You have to apply for financial aid every academic year you plan to enroll in school.
3) Once you’ve created a profile, you will have access to the FAFSA. At first, the questions will be general demographic questions like your name, social security number and address. Pretty simple so far!
4) Once you’ve filled out demographic information, you will have an opportunity to select the schools where you want to send your FAFSA. It is OK if you haven’t been accepted yet, they won’t look at your FAFSA unless you’ve been accepted. You can add up to 10 schools.
IMPORTANT: If you are a male over the age of 18, you must register with the Selective Service to receive federal financial aid.
IMPORTANT: If you apply to more than 10 schools, you must submit your FAFSA with the first 10, and then you can go back into FAFSA after submission, remove one school and replace it with the next school on your list.
5) Next, you’ll have to answer some yes/no questions to determine whether you are dependent or independent for financial aid purposes. Students who are independent, for example, may qualify for more loans. If you are determined to be dependent, you will have to fill in general information about your parents on the next page.
6) After you answer these general questions, you will have to fill in information from your (and your parents’ if you’re dependent) federal tax returns. The best way to do this is to use the link-up IRS tool that the FAFSA provides. This will basically fill in a lot of the FAFSA for you. Otherwise, you may fill it in manually—with each box you click into there are helpful hints that pop up on the right side of the screen. Each line and box of a federal tax return is labeled with a number, and usually the hint tells you which line and box to find the information to enter.
7) You will have to sign and submit your FAFSA. In order to sign it, you will need to create a PIN if you haven’t already done so. If you are dependent, your parents also will need a PIN if they don’t already have one. You can apply right online on the signature page.
8) Once you submit your FAFSA, you will get an estimation of your federal financial aid—namely whether you are eligible for the Pell Grant and what your Stafford Loan limit is. After your FAFSA is processed, you will receive a finalized Student Aid Report (SAR) with your Expected Family Contribution (an estimation of what your family is expected to pay for your college education).
IMPORTANT: These numbers are only estimates. You are not entitled to this money. Financial aid is determined by each institution, and they may only offer you up to the Cost of Attendance of the school. Also, your EFC is not necessarily what you will pay for college. You could end up owing more.
9) Last, but not least, be sure to check every financial aid website of the colleges where you are applying. You may need to fill out a separate institutional application for financial aid in addition to the FAFSA as well as the College Board’s CSS PROFILE.
10) If you are having trouble filling out your FAFSA, look to see if there are any TRIO Educational Opportunity Centers in your area—these centers will help you fill the form out for free. (Search online for “TRIO educational opportunity centers” with your city and/or state name.) Also, many communities host College Goal Sunday (http://www.collegegoalsundayusa.org/Pages/default.aspx) events in February to help you with the FAFSA. Be sure to visit the federal government’s student aid website (http://studentaid.ed.gov/fafsa) to get trusted advice about filling out the FAFSA.