When applying for federal student aid, including loans and grants, your first crucial step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Filling out forms, admittedly, is no one’s idea of fun. And if you have never done it before, you may be wondering: How long does it take to fill out the FAFSA?
The news is better than you may think: If you prepare ahead of time, you can fill out the FAFSA pretty quickly. And eventually, due to the FUTURE Act passed in 2019, the form may take even less time for some to fill out than it does now.
Here are answers to some key questions, such as…
The answer depends on who you ask, but fafsa.ed says it takes most people less than an hour to fill out and submit the FAFSA.
If you have all your documents and information ready before you sit down to fill out the form — such as your and your parents’ W2s, bank statements, Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses — it should speed up the process significantly.
It’s wise to fill out the FAFSA as soon as it’s available: Oct. 1 of the year before you need financial aid. Because schools have a limited amount of money, applying early could mean a bigger piece of the pie for you. Applying as early as possible will also give you more time to negotiate your financial aid package.
First, you’ll want to figure out how you’re going to fill out the form. There are multiple ways to do so — you can either fill out the form online at fafsa.gov, or by using the myStudentAid mobile app, or you can complete a FAFSA PDF by hand, the old-fashioned way. Keep in mind that the old-fashioned way also involves sending the form out by snail mail, and it will increase the processing time (five to seven days instead of three to five), so this isn’t the best option if you’re looking to speed things up.
Now here are four tips for filling out the FAFSA faster, and some information on how the process might be sped up even more:
You will need to create an FSA ID to get the process started. Consider your FAFSA ID to be your signature. Don’t lose it, as it can be difficult to retrieve. If you’re including any information about your parents, one of them should also create a FAFSA ID.
It sometimes takes a while before you can use your FSA ID, so create yours a few days before you plan to complete the FAFSA in order to save time once you’re actually ready to fill out the form. Before you sit down to create the FSA ID on fafsa.gov, make sure you have your Social Security card, as you’ll need to enter it into the online form to create the ID.
When you fill out the FAFSA, you’ll need to include the schools to which you’re applying.
If you’re not exactly sure yet what your top-choice schools are, that’s OK. But you should brainstorm a list of up to 10 schools before you sit down to fill out the form. You can always make changes to your FAFSA form later if need be.
When filling out the FAFSA, your parents will have to provide information as well information as well, as long as you are a dependent student. First, if you are unsure of whether or not you are a dependent, you can determine your status here. If your family situation is a bit complicated, you can also go here to find out who might count as a parent for FAFSA purposes. Know the information your parent or parents will have to provide, including date of birth, Social Security number and financial facts including tax and asset information. Having your parent or parents gather all the needed information ahead of time should be a time-saver when it’s time to fill out the FAFSA.
You should have access to last year’s tax returns before you sit down to fill out the FAFSA, if you filed, but in many cases, your tax information can be imported automatically through the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Because the FAFSA uses last year’s tax returns, you won’t have to estimate your tax information. All you’ll have to do is import your information directly from the IRS site, as long as you filed taxes last year, and the tax information fields on the FAFSA will be pre-populated. Talk about a time-saver. Be aware that you won’t be able to edit any of the information once it’s imported.
Speaking of tools, Frank is a web tool that may be able to help you fill out the FAFSA even faster at no cost to you. The site claims that it can help you fill out the FAFSA in four minutes, as it does a good amount of the “heavy lifting” for you. There’s no cost, so it may be worth trying to see if it can help you shave off even more time from the FAFSA-filling process.
In 2019, the FUTURE Act was signed into law. Among other things, the act made changes to the FAFSA process that should shorten the time it takes to complete, particularly for some students.
For example, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool is helpful for many students, but some (for example, those who are married but file separately, or those who do not file taxes at all), it is more difficult to use effectively. The new law, according to reports, will allow the tax information (or lack thereof) of these applicants to be shared by the IRS.
This could eliminate 22 additional questions they may now have to answer on the form. This also may actually help further eliminate the need for income verification, which can be a drag on the process for many students, particularly those with lower income.
As of the time this article was published, it was not clear when these changes would actually take effect, but they reportedly are not slated to do so for the 2020-2021 school year.
As you can see, filling out the FAFSA doesn’t have to take hours, and the process can be relatively easy. Use the tips above, and you should feel more prepared to quickly fill out the form.
You should also know that, once you fill out the form the first time, you can fill out a renewal FAFSA every other year that you are applying for federal aid. This means your information from the previous year will automatically be filled in, so you’ll only have to make changes where necessary. This is also a nice time-saver to look forward to.
For more on the FAFSA, you can go here for some answers to 15 of your most burning FAFSA questions.
Rebecca Stropoli contributed to this report.
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