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How To Apply for FAFSA: Everything Students Should Know


Apply for FAFSA: Two boys looking at computer

If you’re applying to college this year or next, you’re probably wondering how it’ll cost. College is a major investment, and it can be overwhelming to see just how much it costs. Fortunately, there are many sources of funding available to you, and the FAFSA form help makes this possible. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Student Aid.

This form is essential if you want to receive federal funding for your college education. Still, there’s no denying the financial aid process can be confusing and overwhelming. We’ll tell you how to apply for FAFSA, when the application is due, and why it matters.

What Is FAFSA?

The United States federal government allocates a large sum of money toward funding students. All colleges and universities use FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to award federal funding to students.

This form is often the only way higher education institutions can see your family’s financial situation. This makes the application crucial for creating a financial aid package for private and school-sponsored programs, making you eligible for all types of funding.

Types of Funding

Federal funding is awarded in four key different formats: grants, scholarships, work-study jobs, and loans. Grants are need-based funds that do not have to be repaid. In addition to federal grants, students can also receive grants from state governments, nonprofit organizations, and private donors. The only time you may have to repay a grant is if you withdraw from school or don’t maintain the academic requirements outlined when the grant was given.

Scholarships are typically based on academics or other school-related achievements. Some scholarships are given to certain minorities and demographic groups, such as single mothers or first-generation college students. Work-study programs are need-based funding opportunities in which students can work on campus. These federally-funded jobs allow students to make an income to pay for additional school expenses, such as meals and books, without having to repay it.

Lastly, federal loans are need-based and do need to be repaid after graduation. The four main types of loans include direct subsidized loans (these are based on financial need), direct unsubsidized loans (which are not based on financial need), direct PLUS loans (credit-based loans), and direct consolidation loans (multiple types of loans combined into one loan).

Undergraduate students can borrow a maximum of $5,500 to $12,500 per year in direct subsidized loans and direct unsubsidized loans. The exact amount available is determined by dependency status and need.

Who Is Eligible for Federal Student Aid?

Apply for FAFSA: College building doorway with fall leaves and bikes

Almost all students who apply for FAFSA are eligible for at least some financial aid. That being said, students have to meet a few criteria in order to receive federal funding.

In order to receive financial aid, students must be a U.S. citizen (or an eligible noncitizen, meaning you’re a permanent resident with a registration card or gain eligibility upon arrival). Students must also have a high school diploma, a GED, or an equivalent.

Undergraduate students who demonstrate a high level of need are eligible for a federal Pell grant, which doesn’t have to be repaid. This type of grant is awarded when a student displays exceptional financial need. For the 2020-2021 academic year, the maximum amount a student can borrow through a Pell Grant is $6,345. This may vary by school year, however, so it's important to contact the financial aid office if you have questions.

When Is the FAFSA Application Due?

FAFSA deadlines vary by state, but the application season begins on October 1 and ends on June 30. Some state deadlines encourage early student financial aid applications by granting awards on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Thirteen states award state aid on a first-come, first-served basis or until funds are depleted. These states include Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, and Washington.

For locations without this rule, state financial aid deadlines still vary. For example, while some state forms are in February, others are due in March. New York and Louisiana give students until June 30 to apply without any repercussions.

As discussed, your school will use the FAFSA application to determine your financial need and that of your family. To get this information to schools more quickly, gather the school code of each institution you'd like to apply to before you fill out the FAFSA.

How To Get Started With FAFSA

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The FAFSA form can be located on fafsa.gov. Here, you can also access FAQs in the federal student aid information center. This will provide you with the details you need regarding the entire application process, including which federal financial aid programs you may be eligible for.

If you know you’ll be filling out the FAFSA form, it’s important to prepare all of your documents well in advance. This will help reduce the overwhelm that may be associated with completing such an important document.

The documents you'll need include:

  • Your social security number
  • Federal income tax returns
  • Information on untaxed income
  • Date of birth
  • Driver's license or ID card
  • Bank statements

Once you've gathered this information, you'll need to create a FAFSA ID, which will allow you to access the online application, submit your documents, and apply for FAFSA with ease.

You can also manually apply for the FAFSA. To do so, you’ll have to download and print the FAFSA PDF, fill it out either manually or electronically, and send it to the office of financial aid for each school on your list. Simply research the office of financial aid for each institution to find the address. There's also a mobile app where you can access and submit your application.

This recent feature has helped expand access to the form to more families who may not have a computer at home. It also allows students to see the status of their form and makes the process simpler for people who prefer to use mobile devices.

IRS Data Retrieval Tool

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One of the most important things you’ll need to apply for FAFSA is accurate tax information. Your family’s federal income tax returns are used to determine your income and therefore, your eligibility for aid. This tool also ensures the US Department of Education has accurate financial information on file for your family, which will prevent any need for changes and delays later on.

The IRS data retrieval tool makes it easy for students to find this information. To access their tax returns, you’ll need your parents’ social security numbers. After that, all schools you apply to can access this information.

How Long Does the FAFSA Application Take?

The online FAFSA is streamlined to provide a user-friendly experience, and most people finish in less than one hour. Again, preparing your documents ahead of time ensures that you can finish on time without having to rush. This makes the process smoother both for you and your parents or guardians.

The FAFSA application will take slightly longer for students who are dependents, as they'll need to enter both their guardians’ information and their own.

When you apply for FAFSA, the application is usually processed in under a week (3-5 days on average). Additionally, you’ll receive confirmation in the form of a Student Aid Report (SAR). Review this document to make sure everything looks correct.

The SAR will determine the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) from your household for the year. This report is also sent to the colleges you’re applying to and listed in your initial form.

How To Apply for FAFSA With Confidence

College is an exciting and transformative experience, and financial aid makes this milestone more accessible. Students must apply for FAFSA to be considered for all types of federal funding as well as private and university-sponsored funds. For more help preparing for college, visit TutorMe.

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