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.
Need a student loan?Here are our top student loan lenders of 2020!
|1.24% – 11.44%1||Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents|
|1.25% – 11.15%*,2||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|1.24% – 11.98%3||Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents|
|1.24% – 12.49%4||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|1.80% – 11.89%5||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|2.71% – 12.99%6||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|3.52% – 9.50%7||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers. |
1 Important Disclosures for Earnest.
2 Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.
3 Important Disclosures for College Ave.
College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.
Information advertised valid as of 9/1/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Lowest advertised rates require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.
4 Important Disclosures for Discover.
Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans, and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.
5 Important Disclosures for SoFi.
UNDERGRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.23% to 11.76% annual percentage rate (“APR”) (with autopay), variable rates from 1.90% to 11.66% APR (with autopay). GRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 11.83% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.80% to 11.73% APR (with autopay). MBA AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.30% to 11.98% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.97% to 11.89% APR (with autopay). PARENT LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.60% to 11.26% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.90% to 11.16% APR (with autopay). For variable rate loans, the variable interest rate is derived from the one-month LIBOR rate plus a margin and your APR may increase after origination if the LIBOR increases. Changes in the one-month LIBOR rate may cause your monthly payment to increase or decrease. Interest rates for variable rate loans are capped at 13.95%, unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law. Lowest rates are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. If approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, the repayment option you select, the term and amount of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. Information current as of 07/10/2020. Enrolling in autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi. SoFi Lending Corp., licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. NMLS #1121636 (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org).
6 Important Disclosures for Ascent.
Before taking out private student loans, you should explore and compare all financial aid alternatives, including grants, scholarships, and federal student loans and consider your future monthly payments and income. Applying with a cosigner may improve your chance of getting approved and could help you qualify for a lower interest rate. Ascent Student Loans may be funded by Richland State Bank (RSB). Ascent Student Loan products are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application, verification of application information and certification of loan amount by a participating school. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions, and certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. Ascent is a federally registered trademark of Turnstile Capital Management (TCM) and may be used by RSB under limited license. Richland State Bank is a federally registered service mark of Richland State Bank.
* Application times vary depending on the applicant’s ability to supply the necessary information for submission.
7 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.
Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown. All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 0.17% effective Sep 1, 2020 and may increase after consummation.