If you’re planning to attend college soon (or are in college now) and you’re counting on financial aid to help with the costs, one of your most important annual tasks is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) (learn more about paying for college with Wells Fargo’s 5 Step Guide to Paying for College).
Why is the FAFSA so important? You must complete this form each year to be eligible for all federal student aid (grants and loans) for the school year ahead. Many colleges also require students to complete the FAFSA to apply for scholarships or other aid programs the school offers. It’s a big deal!
Below are the three main steps to fill out your FAFSA: preparing for the form, filling out the form, and what to expect after you submit.
1. Prep to file FAFSA
Not having the FAFSA top of mind can cause you to miss not only the deadline but also a chance at valuable financial aid funding. As with many things in life, it’s much easier — and less stressful — to complete the FAFSA if you plan for it.
First: Get your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. If you don’t already have it, you’ll need to get one to file your FAFSA. You can easily obtain an FSA ID online.
Second: Start early so you have plenty of time to get any documents and information you need and to help ensure that you meet important deadlines. The newest FAFSA becomes available online October 1 each year, and applications are due June 30. But remember, it’s not just the federal deadline you need to consider — schools and states also have their own deadlines for aid, which are usually much earlier than June. Some types of aid programs have limited funds and are awarded in the order in which applications are received.
Third: Gather required documents and information
Among the most important things you will need to fill out the form are:
- Basic personal information such as your full name, address, date of birth,
phone number, and driver’s license number.
- Your Social Security number.
- Recent federal income tax returns, W-2s, and records of any income you
- Bank statements and records of any investment accounts, if applicable.
- Name and location of the college or university you plan to attend or are considering attending. You can add more schools later if you haven’t finalized your list yet.
If you’re a dependent of your parent(s), you will also need most of the above information for them. (Note: This doesn’t apply if you’re age 24 or older, married, a veteran, are working toward a master’s or doctorate degree, or meet other specific criteria, which are explained in the FAFSA and on the FAFSA website.) Work with your parents to gather this information.
2. Get down to business and complete the form
You can fill out the FAFSA online at FAFSA.gov. The online process is designed to help you move along easily and guides you through the sections you must complete. A few tips:
First: Budget at least an hour to complete the FAFSA.
Second: Read the instructions and each question carefully and provide accurate answers; double-check all dates and spelling before you submit.
Third: If you need to take a break as you’re working on the application, save your progress and return to it later by logging back in to the FAFSA website — just be sure to return to it within 45 days, or your progress will be deleted.
And fourth: In some states, you can also apply for state aid programs at the same time you fill out your FAFSA. Watch for a link in your confirmation page that lets you import information from your FAFSA directly into the state application.
3. Check your status after you submit
After you see the satisfying confirmation page that lets you know your form was submitted successfully, you can check the status of your application anytime by going to the “My FAFSA” page when logged in.
After your FAFSA has been processed, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), usually within a week or two. If you provided an email address, you’ll receive an email explaining how to access your SAR online. Otherwise, your SAR will arrive in the mail.
The SAR summarizes all the information on your FAFSA and also lists your Expected Family Contribution, which is a figure that schools and the federal government use to determine your eligibility for need-based aid such as grants.
The information on your SAR will be provided to the school(s) you listed on your FAFSA. The school(s) will then calculate the amount and type(s) of aid for which you are eligible and send you an award letter. Check with each school to find out when it typically sends award letters.