Ultimate Guide to Filling Out and Filing Your FAFSA by the Deadline

fafsa application

If you’re still working your way through college or graduate school, you probably spend a lot of time trying to find the money to pay for it. By now, you know the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — or FAFSA — is your gateway to getting your hands on federal financial aid.

Admittedly, the FAFSA application is a beast; there is a ton of information to fill out, plus strict deadlines that need to be met. But it’s crucial to fill out the FAFSA on time each year, which begs the question: What do you need to complete it?

Don’t worry — we’re here to help.

When is the FAFSA application due?

According to the FAFSA website, you can submit the form starting on Oct. 1. Keep track of FAFSA deadlines, too. The application remains open until the end of June, a year and a half later. You can also make changes for a few months after that.

It is important to note, however, that you should file as close to Oct. 1 as possible to get the most aid. Plus, state and institutional deadlines might fall earlier than the federal deadline. And in the case when the number of qualified applicants exceeds the amount of certain types of aid available, meeting the deadline is the best way to ensure you get what you need.

If you’re hoping to receive financial aid from a non-federal source that uses the FAFSA as a screening tool, look up the deadline well in advance to ensure you do not miss it.

In fact, it may be a good idea to submit the FAFSA application as soon as you have all the information necessary to complete the form.

What is required to fill out the FAFSA?

So what information is necessary to fill out the FAFSA? Typically, you will need your tax returns, as well as your parents’ tax returns if you are considered a dependent student. Your dependency status affects your application in other ways.

For example, you might not have control over when your parents’ tax information is available to you. In situations like these, the best course of action is to use the prior year’s tax returns to fill out the FAFSA for the upcoming year — particularly if your parents’ financial situation is relatively unchanged.

Remember, you have until late September to submit corrections or updates, so you can always go back and plug in the final numbers later rather than risk missing the deadline for FAFSA entirely.

How to apply for FAFSA

The FAFSA application may be filled out online or by mailing in a paper form. Filling out the FAFSA online ensures that it will be processed more quickly — three to five days compared to the paper form, which takes seven to 10 days to process.

Note that it’s always free to submit the FAFSA. There are some companies that require you to pay for FAFSA help; at the least, it’s unnecessary and a waste of money. Avoid FAFSA scams of all types.

It’s easier to edit and make corrections later if you file your FAFSA electronically because you can see your original answers to the questions. Electronic filing also ensures that this year’s FAFSA will remain easily accessible in subsequent years. That way, when you are ready to fill out the next year’s FAFSA, you will be able to see how you answered questions in the past.

Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to help you fill out the FAFSA by the deadline while simultaneously reducing the odds of errors. According to the FAFSA website, “The IRS Data Retrieval Tool allows students and parents to access the IRS tax return information needed to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and transfer the data directly into their FAFSA from the IRS Web site.”

Not everyone is eligible to use the IRS data retrieval tool, however. If you are eligible, it may be helpful.

Note that like the FAFSA, filing your taxes electronically rather than mailing in a paper form makes them available sooner. Electronic filers’ tax information is typically accessible two to three weeks after filing; those who mail in paper forms may have to wait eight to 11 weeks before they are able to use the data retrieval tool.

Don’t miss your chance to qualify for financial aid

The FAFSA is one of the most important resources available to help students pay for their college education. Even if you do not qualify for federal gift aid (which you don’t have to pay back), the FAFSA is how many lenders and other sources of aid determine eligibility for their programs.

Missing the deadline can have negative consequences, including having to take out private loans when it was not necessary to do so.

In other words, don’t delay — fill out your FAFSA today!

Andrew Pentis contributed to this article.

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