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You’ve probably heard about the FAFSA…but what exactly is it? Our guide for the first-time FAFSA applicant will break it down for you.

First things first, the acronym FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” This application considers you for need-based scholarships and grants for college. It’s also necessary if you wish to use federal student loans to fund your college education. The FAFSA can definitely be your friend when it comes to paying for college!

Each year, the FAFSA opens on October 1st for the following school year, so mark your calendars or set a reminder in your phone. There are certain funds that do run out, so the earlier you complete this, the better. In this case, procrastination can cost you (literally). Feeling super ambitious? You can complete steps 1 and 2 BEFORE October 1st!

Step 1: Create an FSA ID

Your FSA ID is the username and password you create to access certain Department of Education websites. It will also help verify your identity and serve as your digital signature for your FAFSA. If you are a dependent student (more on that here), then your parent will need to create an FSA ID as well.

Step 2: Gather important documents

It may seem like the FAFSA is super nosy with all of the info they request from you, but it’s crucial in determining the aid you are eligible for. You’ll need to dig in the archives for the items below.

  • Social Security Number (check and double check this information)
  • Parents’ Social Security Numbers (if you’re a dependent student)
  • Driver’s License Number (if applicable)
  • Alien Registration Number (if applicable)
  • Federal Tax Information/Tax Returns including W-2 information for you, your spouse (if applicable) and your parents (if you’re a dependent) from two years prior (i.e. 2019-2020 school year will use 2017 tax info)
  • Records of Untaxed Income (i.e. interest income, child support, Veteran non-education benefits, if applicable)
  • Info on cash, savings and checking account balances, any investments you’ve made, i.e. stocks, bonds and real estate (excluding your primary residence), business and farm assets – for you or your parents (if you’re a dependent)

Once you’ve input all of this information, be sure to keep these documents in a safe, but accessible location. There’s about a 20% chance your application will be chosen for verification. You will then have to provide your college with certain documentation to ensure all information you reported is correct. You can be selected for verification randomly or because something doesn’t quite match up. Either way, your college will notify you if you’ve been selected and what documentation is necessary.

Step 3: Start the FAFSA

You created your FSA ID, you tracked down all of your documents, and October 1st is here! It’s now time to start your FAFSA! Head on over to fafsa.ed.gov and click “Start Here.” Be sure to use ONLY fafsa.ed.gov. Unfortunately, there are scammy websites out there that are named and look very similar to the real website that will charge for filing your FAFSA. You should NEVER pay to file your FAFSA! Once you start a new application, you have the opportunity to create a save key. Make sure you don’t skip this step. You probably won’t complete your FAFSA in one sitting, so this allows you to save your work and return where you left off, even across devices.

Step 4: Evaluate your dependency status

There is a laundry list of questions the FAFSA will ask to determine dependency status. You can read more about those questions here. Generally speaking, if you are under the age of 24, unmarried, and not a member of the military, you are considered a dependent student for FAFSA purposes. If you are classified as a dependent and feel you have an extenuating circumstance, we’d recommend connecting with your college financial aid office regarding your individual situation.

Step 5: Input financial information

This section is where you input all of your tax and financial information. If you are considered a dependent, you will input your parents info as well. Pro tip: if you have the option to use the “IRS data retrieval tool,” do it! This allows your tax return to automatically sync with your FAFSA. This makes your life way easier and decreases your likelihood of being selected for verification.

Step 6: Select FAFSA recipients

The FAFSA requires you to provide a list of 1-10 schools you’d like your FAFSA results sent to. These colleges will then use your FAFSA to determine both the type and amount of aid they’ll offer you upon acceptance. You can always add schools later, but some schools do create financial aid packages on a rolling basis. It’s better to have your FAFSA on file sooner rather than later. (Some financial aid award types do run out).

Step 7: Sign and submit the FAFSA

One last thing… you must sign your FAFSA application using your FSA ID and hit “submit.” You’ll know you’ve successfully submitted your FAFSA once you’ve seen the confirmation page. You will also get an email confirmation of your submission. If you happen to have a sibling in college who is also a dependent, this confirmation page will allow you to transfer your parents’ info to their FAFSA as well. Yay for efficiency!

If you’re ever stuck on anything FAFSA related, you are not alone! Be sure to seek help from your high school counselor, college admissions counselor, or your prospective college’s financial aid office. Good luck!