A Complete FAFSA Guide: Answers to All Your Questions


Is college part of your plan for the future, but you don’t have the money to pay for the ever-increasing cost of tuition? Applying for financial aid through the FAFSA might make your dreams a reality.

There are many options to help with financing your higher education. If you can’t afford to pay college costs with your savings nor count on family contributions, then you may wish to explore the other possibilities available to you. You can finance your studies by receiving grants, scholarships, federal student loans, and other forms of need-based financial aid.

In this article, you will find all the vital information you need to apply for the FAFSA. You will learn:

  • Why FAFSA is useful to everyone.
  • What information and documentation you will need to provide, and when you should send your submission.
  • What kind of aid you should apply for, and more.

First, What Does FAFSA Mean?

Before getting into the details of FAFSA, you should know what it is. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. As the name suggests, you can apply for federal student aid for free!

The Federal Student Aid Office uses the FAFSA to regulate a student’s eligibility for federal financial aid for college. If you can meet the eligibility requirements, you will be able to claim financial support. That support can come in several forms. There are grants, scholarships, assistance for work-study programs, and even loans. 

Despite the benefit of financial aid, many students don’t even try to apply. Why? Because of the misconceptions surrounding the FAFSA.

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Why Should You Complete the FAFSA?

The Origins

Originally the FAFSA was designed to collect information on current and potential college students to determine if they should receive financial aid. The application process was overly complicated, so most students failed to provide their data. On top of a stressful application, the students presenting their data had to pay to submit, which further discouraged them from completing the form. 

Misconceptions grew around the students’ reluctance to complete the FAFSA. Some believed that the Federal Student Aid Office didn’t give money to everyone, that only eligible low-income students were considered. Students whose families made too much money thought it was useless to turn to the FAFSA. Another misconception was that if someone’s grades weren’t good enough, they didn’t have a chance. The list went on: if a student was too old, hadn’t taken the right classes, and so on.

You may have heard the same stories about the FAFSA. The truth though is a far more inclusive and encouraging possibility. 

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The Reality

To understand the FAFSA, you need to separate fact from fiction.

  • The FAFSA is not complicated! Not anymore at least. In its current form, it’s easy to fill out the application, and it only takes about 30 minutes!
  • The FAFSA doesn’t require any money! It’s free.
  • It isn’t impossible to qualify. More students qualify than you would think.
  • The FAFSA isn’t just for low-income students. Any student applying for scholarships that contain some element of federal funding must complete the FAFSA to qualify—even if the federal contribution is only a small percentage.

It’s essential to complete FAFSA because it provides you access to the most extensive source of financial aid sources available. That ultimately helps support your college studies.

Many colleges and states use your FAFSA data to determine both your eligibility for federal financial and even private school-specific student aid.

Now you know the truth. Will you give it a try? If so, let’s go through the process step by step!

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A Step-by-Step Guide to Completing the FAFSA

The Deadline

When is the deadline? As a first step, take a look at the deadline. Don’t worry if you missed it; you haven’t wasted your time reading this article. To receive federal financial aid you must complete the FAFSA each year you’re in school, so you will need this information for the next term.

The deadline is June 30th of each year. For example, you have until June 30th, 2020, to submit for financial aid for the school year of 2019-2020. You have a long time to apply as the application acceptance period starts from October 1st of the year before the actual academic year, 2018 with the above example. The period then runs for 21 months and remains open until June 30th, 2020. The period is the same for each year. 

To improve your chances of receiving federal student aid, you should submit the FAFSA as soon on or after October 1st as possible. The longer you wait, the fewer opportunities you have to get the best federal financial aid package for you. A lot of financial aid packages are available earlier than the general application deadline. Earlier deadlines are generally the case for many state student aid and college funds. That means, if you don’t hurry, you will be left with what remains and in some cases will not be considered at all.

What happens if you miss the deadline?

Don’t miss the deadlines in the first place!

It’s essential to pay close attention to the dates! The primary deadline is the June 30th date, but it can vary based on your location and what kind of student aid you want to receive. Check the FAFSA deadline by visiting their website. Doing this will allow you to see the terms specific to your state. You can also ask for information from the school you are attending on deadlines to meet particular scholarship requirements.

Federal vs. State Deadlines

There is another crucial point to consider. You need to be aware of the difference between federal and state cut off dates. You have until June 30th to fill out your application. Doing so will allow you to get financial aid awards, scholarships, federal student loans, and other financial federal student help. Even if you can’t apply before your state’s deadline, you may still receive federal aid, but not state funds.

You may find that cases differ depending on your particular college. They often offer alternative deadlines for funds, which implies that you are supposed to make your submission within that date no matter the more general June deadline.

Not only that! When you start examining the deadlines, don’t ignore the terms either. Review your institution’s conditions about FAFSA deadlines and make sure you are proceeding with your application correctly.

Am I Eligible?

A deadline is irrelevant if you are not qualified to apply. For this reason, ensuring you’re eligible is step 2. Initially, you have two basic eligibility categories to take into consideration. First, you must meet the basic requirements for eligibility for financial aid. Then, you can explore additional criteria that may qualify for assistance.

Let’s take a look at the minimum requirements for eligibility.

Basic Financial Aid Eligibility Criteria

The FAFSA’s primary eligibility terms require that you:

  • Have difficulties in financing your studies in your college or career school. You demonstrate financial needs that are based on a calculation of the difference between the cost of attendance (COA) and your expected family contribution (EFC).
  • Are a U.S. citizen with a social security number or eligible noncitizen.
  • Choose a suitable degree or certificate curriculum at your institute.

Many students are intimidated because they think their family’s income or EFC is too high. For this reason, they feel that they don’t meet the financial federal eligibility term. It’s not necessarily true for every federal student. In addition to the economic conditions, many other factors, like the size of your family, are taken into consideration. Remember, too, that even if your EFC is too high, many merit-based scholarships have elements of federal funding and require you to complete the FAFSA.

The FAFSA encourages you to ask any question if you are unsure of how to proceed. You can turn to your college financial aid office or financial aid administrator to request support in the matter.

Complete FAFSA

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Additional Financial Aid Eligibility Criteria

Parents lost or missing in action in military service

You might be eligible for additional financial aid, such as a federal grant called the Federal Pell Grant, if one of your parents passed away or was deemed missing in action while performing military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after September 11th.

Applicants with disabilities

If you are a student with intellectual disabilities, you may be qualified to apply for federal financial support. This support comes from the Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, and the Federal Work-Study programs. To be eligible for such grants, you must meet the following criteria:

  • You will attend, or you are attending a comprehensive transition and postsecondary (CTP) program at a school that takes part in the federal student aid plans.
  • You meet your institute’s educational requirements, and you will presumably finish your studies with a degree or certificate.
  • Your eligibility conditions match with the primary federal student aid eligibility requirements, but you do not have to have received a high school diploma or GED, nor are you required to pursue a degree or certificate.

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Homeless graduates

If you are a homeless student, you cannot directly receive any special financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education. However, you have other possibilities for financial support during your studies. You can apply for different forms of help if you cannot afford to pay your college as long as you fit the eligibility requirements for federal financial aid. Here are some sources of aid information for homeless students:

  • I Want to Go to College: Now What?
  • Federal Student Aid and Homeless Youth
  • FAFSA® dependency status information

You can find useful information about what kind of services are available here, along with organizations that can help. The page was created to guide professionals in assisting homeless students with financial problems. 

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Students in foster care

If you are a student who is or has been in foster care, you also have some additional options for receiving extra help. Again, the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t have specific financial aid programs for you, so you need to look for them elsewhere. For example, you can check dependency status information on the FAFSA website. You can also make use of the Foster Care Transition Toolkit and Educational and Training Vouchers for Current and Former Foster Care Youth. 

Candidates with criminal records

Your chances of a successful application will be drastically lower if you have criminal convictions against you. Additionally, imprisonment for reasons such as drug offenses or your participation in an involuntary civil commitment after incarceration for a sexual assault will reduce your chances further.

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Be on guard and stay eligible!

Don’t forget to check your status now and then. Verify if you are still eligible or if anything has changed in your circumstances. Keep in mind that you have to complete FAFSA each year.

How to Avoid Losing Your Eligibility

Be careful, as you can lose your financial aid eligibility. Some of the more typical reasons for losing financial aid are:

  • You fail to repay your student loans; if you are in default on a federal student loan, you won’t receive financial federal student aid until you solve this issue.
  • You don’t enroll in the education program for which you were eligible.
  • Your academic progress isn’t meeting the educational requirements of your college.
  • You are convicted of a drug offense or have committed a crime.
  • Generally, if you no longer match the essential eligibility criteria.

In this case, you can turn to your office of financial aid and ask if you have any chance to regain your eligibility.

What to Do When You Decide to Apply

Here is a list of the information you have to provide to complete the FAFSA:

  • Social security number and driver’s license number if applicable.
  • If you are not a resident of the United States, you will need your alien registration number.
  • Records regarding your income, and tax situation; what you earned, your federal income tax returns, W-2s, etc.
  • Bank statements and to show evidence of investments, if you have such.
  • Evidence of untaxed income.
  • In case you are living with your parents as a dependent student, you will need to show the 1040 forms, W-2 forms, and your parents’ tax situation with tax return transcript and federal tax return record.
  • A Federal School Code (also known as Title IV Institution Codes) for each school to which you apply. You can find the necessary codes from the FAFSA federal school code search.
  • In the end, you have to create your FSA ID on fsaid.ed.gov. Keep in mind that your parents will also need their FSA ID.

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What happens after you submit your FAFSA application?

After you submit your application, all your data and information will go to the colleges or career schools to which you have applied.

Next, the financial aid offices of the relevant institutions will examine your circumstances and decide how much financial aid you are eligible for and the amount and types that a particular school can offer you. Each organization has different rules and requirements. They may ask you to fill out other documents as well. These documents will help you apply for the financial help they specifically offer.

Your state’s higher-education agency and other agencies of the states where you have chosen a school will also receive your data. Many states that provide funds take into account your FAFSA info. You can apply for state, federal, and school financial aid, scholarships, and grants using your FAFSA form.

The status of your FAFSA form

After submitting, you can check your status soon after you have sent your form.

If you complete your form online, you could see your status within 3-5 days. You can check the status of a paper form 7–10 days after it has been mailed.

Your options to check your status is based on the way you have submitted:

  • For online applications, you can go to their official website, fafsa.gov.
  • For mailed applications, you can ask about your status from the Federal Student Aid Information Center by calling their free phone number: 1-800-433-3243.

Don’t worry if they haven’t finished updating the status of your FAFSA form yet. It can take a few days, so wait a while and then recheck it.

To verify your FAFSA status, you will have to provide some data. For example, you will need your name, date of birth, Social Security Number, and of course, your FSA ID.

Soon after you have submitted the data, you can download your SAR (Student Aid Report). You will receive it via the mail as well. The SAR contains your expected family contribution (EFC) as well as all the relevant information about your financial aid.

How will I know how much student aid I am going to receive?

If you submit your application using the Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool, you won’t know how much financial student aid you will receive. Nor will you see the details of your income tax and tax return information in your SAR.

To know how much you will get, you will have to wait for a reply from the institutions that accepted your application. They will send you an aid offer online or in paper form which is better known as an award letter. In this letter, you can find their exact calculation of the financial student aid that you are offered from a particular school. The award letter will often provide a mix of scholarship, grant, work-study, and loan funding. You are not required to accept all forms of funding outlined in the letter. 

Don’t be surprised if you receive answers from schools at different times. An institution could send you their letter right before the college or career school starts. Their response time depends on their programs and when you applied.

Verification Selection: Did I Do Something Wrong?

Don’t worry! Being selected for verification doesn’t mean you did something terrible! Many schools have strict verification rules, and they verify all candidates’ information against those rules. Other organizations choose students for checking in a completely random manner. This process makes it possible to confirm if all the information that you provided is correct. If there is a need for verification, you will be asked to supply further documentation that proves the data you stated.

Filling Out the FAFSA Correctly

A lot of applicants worry about making a mistake while filling out the FAFSA. However, there is nothing for you to worry about. You can quickly correct the wrong information on the FAFSA form both online and on paper. It’s easier to fix your form online.

You may also need to change or update relevant data if something has changed in your circumstances. For example, you must update your data if your:

  • Dependency status has changed;
  • Form requires verification
  • Number of family members has changed

However, not all of your information can be updated. You can find a more detailed guide on the student aid gov website.

Decide Which Type of Financial Student Aid You Need

Choosing the right financial aid is not always an easy task. Decisions about money never are.

As a first step, you will need to understand the essential nature of the kind of support offered. Some scholarships or grants are yours, remain yours, and nobody will ask for them back (under standard conditions).

You may also be offered some support in the forms of loans. If you apply for student loans, you will need to pay them back someday. In this case, you have to evaluate some fundamental factors. How many loans do you want to take out? How much will you have to pay back monthly? Can you afford to pay the money back? Would it be more beneficial to evaluate the risk of a student credit card? Remember that there will be interest to pay as well.

When you finish reflecting on your situation, you will need to inform your school about your decision and accept your choice of aid. Find more details on their website.

Complete FAFSA

How You Will Receive Your Student Aid

After going through the application process, the most critical question remains. How do you get your money?

All you need to do is go to the financial aid office at your college and ask for information. They are the ones who distribute the funds among their graduates, not the U.S. Department of Education. It’s also possible that they will require you to present additional documentation to their office.

For example, if you are obtaining loans from the federal government to finance your education, you will be asked to sign a so-called promissory note. As a first time borrower, you will get extra support called entrance counseling because they want you to be aware of the consequences of taking a loan out and ensuring you will be able to pay it back.

When will you get your money? After a school has accepted you, almost every detail of the process can vary based on the requirements and rules of the particular institution.

The most common method of aid distribution is disbursing payments at least two times in an academic year. The idea is that the aid you are receiving should cover the whole school year. You will find organizations that pay per semester, while others pay per quarter and more.  

Go Ahead, Make College Affordable

You’ve got the desire; you’ve got the knowledge. What will you do? Every year financial support that could be helping you fulfill your dreams goes unclaimed. Don’t listen to the rumors. Take charge of your educational career and see what filling out the FAFSA will do for you.


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