Although the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) looks confusing at first, it’s not difficult to navigate once you master the basics about accessing financial aid.
Navigate the most popular FAFSA questions here, or scroll down for the full FAFSA FAQ guide.
General FAFSA FAQ
What is the FAFSA?
What does the FAFSA have to do with financial aid?
Am I eligible for federal financial aid?
When do I apply for the FAFSA?
What should I do if I miss the FAFSA deadline?
What is the Student Aid Report (SAR)?
FAFSA questions about filling out the forms
What information do I need to apply for the FAFSA?
Can I use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to import tax information?
Do I need to submit the FAFSA every year?
Can I edit the FAFSA after I submit it?
What do I do if my (or my parents’) income changes?
Should I file for the FAFSA even if I don’t think I’ll qualify for financial aid?
What to know about federal financial aid
General FAFSA FAQ
Before delving into any other FAFSA FAQ, you need to know what the FAFSA is. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a free online application you fill out to qualify for federal financial aid. Many states and colleges also use the FAFSA to grant state and institutional financial aid.
You submit the FAFSA online on the Federal Student Aid website. You’ll need to create an FSA ID, as well as your parents if you’re a dependent student. The application only takes 20-30 minutes to fill out and submit.
After you submit the FAFSA, the government will look at your information and use it to calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is how much you and your family are expected to pay for your education.
Once your EFC is determined, it’s up to your college to put together your financial aid package. Your college’s financial aid office determines need-based aid by subtracting your EFC from its total cost of attendance.
This aid could be in the form of federal grants, direct subsidized loans or work-study opportunities. That being said, colleges may not necessarily meet your full financial need.
Some schools also award non-need based aid, depending on how much other aid you’ve already received based on the FAFSA. Loans that are non-need based aid include direct unsubsidized loans and federal PLUS loans.
To be eligible for federal financial aid, you must meet the following requirements:
- Be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or eligible noncitizen.
- Have or be on track for your high school diploma.
- Be accepted or enrolled at a Title IV school.
- Maintain satisfactory academic progress in college or grad school. If your GPA falls too low, you’ll lose eligibility for FAFSA loans and financial aid.
The FAFSA application typically opens on Oct. 1 and closes more than a year and a half later on June 30. For the 2019-2020 school year, for example, you can apply for the FAFSA between Oct. 1, 2018 and June 30, 2020.
Some colleges and states, however, set earlier deadlines for financial aid. Check with your college to see if it sets its own FAFSA deadline. Since some financial aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, it’s a good idea to submit the FAFSA as close to Oct. 1 as possible.
Plus, many regular decision colleges want to hear your attendance decision by May 1. By filling out the FAFSA early, you’ll be able to compare financial aid packages from multiple colleges. Then, you’ll be able to better decide on a school.
If you miss your college’s FAFSA deadline, contact the financial aid office. Some states and colleges award aid to latecomers.
As for the federal FAFSA, you’ll have access to it until the end of the school year. If you don’t apply for that school year, fill out the FAFSA for the following year instead.
The Student Aid Report is a document you’ll receive after filling out the FAFSA. It sums up all your answers on the FAFSA application. Look over the SAR to confirm all your information is correct, and notify the FSA if there are any errors. If everything looks good, simply keep the SAR for your personal records.
FAFSA questions about filling out the forms
Up next on the FAFSA FAQ are questions about filling out the application itself. Read on to learn what information you need to apply for financial aid.
The FAFSA asks for personal and financial information. You’ll fill out your contact details, as well as your Social Security number or resident ID. You’ll also indicate up to 10 colleges to receive your FAFSA information.
You or your parents will also provide information from the prior year’s tax return. Beyond gross income, the form asks for your bank account balance, investments and recurring expenses.
Yes, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool is available for the 2019-2020 FAFSA. A couple years ago, the IRS removed the tool for maintenance. It’s now back and ready to import your data directly from the IRS website into the FAFSA.
For a preview of the application, check out this PDF on the 2019-2020 FAFSA.
Yes, you will need to submit the FAFSA every year to remain eligible for federal student aid. After filling it out the first time, you can submit a renewal FAFSA in subsequent years. The website will automatically fill in most of your information from the previous year.
You just need to double-check that everything is still correct. You can also start from the beginning if you need to make significant changes.
Yes, you can edit the FAFSA after you submit. In fact, you’re required to do so if there’s a change in your dependency status, in the number of your family members or in the number of people in your household who are in college.
You can also fix mistakes you made when filling out the form. To make corrections to the FAFSA, log in to your account and click on “Make FAFSA Corrections.” Enter your FSA ID, make any updates and then hit submit.
You can correct any field with the exception of your Social Security number. If you entered an incorrect Social Security number, contact the financial aid office of your college. They might advise you to submit an entirely new FAFSA.
If your family’s income changes dramatically (a parent lost their job, for example), speak with your school’s financial aid office. The college might be able to accommodate your new circumstances. However, additional aid isn’t guaranteed.
The government determines your EFC based on the information that was accurate at the time. If that information is no longer accurate, you’ll need to discuss the changes with your school.
Yes. Don’t neglect to fill out the FAFSA because you think you won’t qualify. There’s no income cutoff for financial aid. Plus, some schools rely on the FAFSA to award scholarships.
Filling it out will also protect you in the event your financial circumstances change. If a parent loses their income, for example, you can speak with your college’s financial aid office about readjusting your financial aid package. But you won’t qualify for federal aid if you never filled out the FAFSA in the first place.
Some common FAFSA myths lead students to believe they’re not eligible for financial aid. Don’t let these misconceptions make you miss out on grants or scholarships.
What to know about federal financial aid
Finally, no FAFSA FAQ would be complete without explaining how federal financial aid works. Here’s how the FAFSA leads to loans and other types of aid.
Financial aid packages are made up of a mix of grants, scholarships, student loans and work-study options. Grants and scholarships, in most cases, you don’t have to pay back this type of financial aid. You will have to pay back student loans — with interest.
The federal work-study program is only available to students with a certain amount of financial need. It allows you to work part time on campus and earn money each semester. If you’re interested in being considered for work-study, make sure to indicate that on the FAFSA.
The amount of financial aid you’ll receive largely depends on the college or graduate school. Some colleges even meet full financial need for all accepted students.
Other colleges might not meet your full financial need. In that case, you will need to find other sources of funding, such as private student loans, if you still wish to attend that school.
Remember that financial aid includes federal student loans — up to $31,000 for dependent undergraduates and up to $138,500 for graduate students. So even if your financial aid award meets your full financial need, you might take on significant debt to pay for school.
To estimate your financial aid package, check out the FAFSA4caster tool. This tool gives you a sense of how much it will cost to attend each school on your list. It can’t predict exactly how much aid you’ll get from each school, but it will give you a rough estimate of the total cost.
College financial aid offices determine your financial aid package. Many regular decision colleges send out admissions decisions in March or April of your senior year in high school. Financial aid packages often come at the same time or shortly after.
Some rolling-decision schools send out decisions and financial aid packages later in the spring or summer. But you should be able to view and compare financial aid packages before it’s time to pick a college.
Don’t forget about institutional aid and scholarships
In addition to finding answers to your FAFSA questions, you should also apply for institutional aid and independent scholarships.
Some colleges, for example, require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. College Board administers the CSS Profile. Almost 400 colleges use it to award non-federal student aid.
Plus, you can apply for scholarships from local and national organizations. By covering all your bases, you’ll get the largest amount of financial aid for college possible. To get started, check out our listing of the best scholarship search tools around the web.
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