Intro to FAFSA: Who, what, when, where, and how

Parent and student talking about FAFSA

Have questions about the FAFSA? You’re not alone! Here are a few questions that may come up as you fill out this important form for college loan, grant, and work-study eligibility.

If you (or your son or daughter) are heading to or are currently in college, the beginning of October signifies that it’s time to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA. You have to submit the FAFSA if you want to qualify for federal and state financial aid. And even if you don’t think you will need aid, some colleges, especially public colleges and universities, require the FAFSA.

So how do you navigate filling out the form for the first time? We’ve put together a list of questions that will likely come up:

Q: Who should fill out a FAFSA form?

Answer: All families who have a student planning to attend college in the upcoming academic year.

There’s a misconception that if a family’s income is above average they shouldn’t bother turning in a FAFSA, but that isn’t true. Sure, those students might not be given need-based grants, but they’ll still want to try for scholarships, merit-based aid, federal loans, or work-study. To do those things, they’ll need to have first completed a FAFSA.

Also important to remember: You need to re-submit your FAFSA application each year you (or your student) attend college. It’s not just high school seniors that apply.

Q: What are some common FAFSA mistakes?

Answer: Filling out your name wrong! It might sound like common sense, but make sure your (or your student’s) name and basic information are entered correctly, in full, and match what’s on your Social Security card. This simple step can help you avoid the most common mistake that will slow down an application.

Remember, accidentally transposing a couple of numbers or letters could cause a FAFSA application to be rejected right out of the gate. Financial aid offices can fix these mistakes, but that could slow down the process. And delays could cause students and families to miss out on funds because the amount of aid available each year is limited, and awarded on a first come, first served basis. So give FAFSA forms a thorough “typo review” before submitting.

Q: When should the FAFSA get turned in?

Answer: As soon as possible after October 1.

Students applying for the next school year should start the FAFSA as early as October 1 the prior year. This is the beginning of financial aid season, and when the application becomes eligible for submitting each year. This may seem early, since many families will not have filed their taxes at that time, but they can use estimates and link the application with the IRS Data Retrieval Tool later.

Some states, grants, and programs have early decision deadlines, which means some money is distributed quickly. Students who turn in their FAFSA sooner can apply for those funds earlier, which could lead to more access to aid.

Q: What info/documents do I need to have handy when applying?

Answer: The FAFSA website says you’ll need:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers if you are a dependent student
  • Your driver’s license number if you have one
  • Your Alien Registration number if you are not a U.S. citizen
  • Federal tax information or tax returns, including IRS W-2 information for you (and your spouse, if you are married), and for your parents if you are a dependent student. This includes:
    • IRS Form 1040
    • Foreign tax return
    • Tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or Palau
  • Records of your untaxed income, such as child support received, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits for you, and for your parents if you are a dependent student
  • Information on cash; savings and checking account balances; investments, including stocks and bonds and real estate (but not including the home in which you live); and business and farm assets for you, and for your parents if you are a dependent student

Clearly the FAFSA requires a good amount of information to complete successfully, but by gathering the documents in advance, you’ll be prepared for all questions asked. Make a checklist or folder ahead of time to stay organized while filing.

Q: Who can help answer my FAFSA questions? Where can I turn for help?

Answer: The first time filling out any financial paperwork can bring up questions, but there are resources available to help anyone going through the process. Here are a few:

Learn more about the FAFSA and funding college education by reviewing Your 5 Step Guide to Paying for College.

Want to read more about completing the fafsa?

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