The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is a form that current and prospective students fill out to determine their eligibility for federal aid. FAFSA forms for the following school year open on October 1st. The federal government uses the FAFSA to award students $120 billion each year through low-interest loans, grants, and work-study opportunities.

The Department of Education (ED) lists three tiers of deadlines for the FAFSA: individual school priority deadlines, state deadlines, and the federal deadline. School priority deadlines are typically the earliest, sometimes only a month or two after the application opens. According to the ED, many schools offer aid on a rolling basis, apportioning money to eligible students on a first-come, first-served. Submitting your FAFSA early is crucial, especially if you're dependent upon aid offers to attend school.

Pay attention to states with multiple deadlines, which may vary depending on whether students are applying to two-year institutions or state-specific grants. The national FAFSA deadline is June 30.

State deadlines are often later in the year, typically 4-5 months after the October 1st opening. The FAFSA website maintains a directory of state deadlines. Pay attention to states with multiple sets of deadlines, which may vary depending on whether students are applying to two-year institutions or state-specific grants. In Pennsylvania, for example, the deadline for first-time attendees to community or trade colleges is August 1st, while all other students must have their documents submitted by May 1st.

The national FAFSA deadline is June 30. The ED suggests that all students — even those who believe they won't be eligible for aid because of family income — apply for the FAFSA because merit-based scholarships and low-interest loans often require FAFSA information, too.

Due to recent changes, the FAFSA now requires several years of tax information, not just the most recent family filing. The process can be confusing, which is why many websites offer help for students navigating the form. Check out BestCollege's own FAFSA guide here.