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July 27, 2021

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Your Guide to the FAFSA

A Note from BestColleges on Coronavirus and Financial Planning in College

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused rapid and significant changes in students' lives. Campus closures have pushed students to online learning, and life after graduation is uncertain for many.

Saving money and budgeting in college is top of mind for many students, even in the best of times. Our Financial Aid Guide can help you understand and plan your finances in college.

We are also working to provide information and resources to students about the impact of coronavirus on college life. Read our latest Coronavirus Resources for Students.

We encourage students to contact their college's financial aid office for any financial questions related to coronavirus. Many services have moved online as schools work to support students through this challenging time.

A far-reaching financial aid form, the FAFSA provides you with access to a variety of funding sources, including grants and work-study awards. The following guide provides in-depth information about FAFSA benefits and how to file the application each year.

What Is the FAFSA?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is used by national, state, and local government agencies — as well as higher education institutions and private organizations — to award financial aid. Although the FAFSA is optional, its widespread usage makes this form a highly important part of the college admissions process.

Why Is the FAFSA Important?

Higher education costs continue to rise. CollegeBoard reports that in-state students who attended public, four-year institutions in 2020 paid — on average — $21,950 in tuition and room and board, while out-of-state learners paid an average of $38,330. Private colleges and universities may charge in excess of $50,000 per year.

To offset these costs and avoid hefty amounts of debt after graduation, you need to prioritize financial aid. The FAFSA allows you to apply for multiple loans, grants, and scholarships simultaneously through an accessible online platform. By completing this form in a timely manner, you can tap into the $120 billion in annual funding offered by the Office of Federal Student Aid.

Additionally, the FAFSA comes with zero risk. You do not need to pay a fee or accept any loans or other forms of aid that come your way. For additional information on FAFSA myths, check out the Department of Education's blog.

Who Qualifies for the FAFSA?

To qualify for FAFSA awards, you must hold U.S. citizenship or be an eligible noncitizen. Because of these criteria, undocumented immigrants cannot apply for federal student aid.

While the FAFSA does not maintain an age limit or income cap, these factors affect your award package because the program bases funding on financial need. Any qualified student can access funding, regardless of whether they attend a four-year institution, a community college, or an online school.

What Types of Financial Aid Can I Qualify For?

Federal student aid comes in three main forms: loans, grants, and work-study awards. You must pay back loans, and you can access subsidized and unsubsidized loans by filling out the FAFSA. Alternatively, a grant is money you do not need to repay. The Office of Federal Student Aid provides grants based on financial need, military status, and degree type.

How Is the Amount of Federal Student Aid Determined?

The FAFSA calculates your financial need by subtracting the expected family contribution from the cost of attendance. Your college or university uses these calculations to disperse aid. Even if you do not demonstrate any financial need, you can still access federal and state loans, as well as private scholarships.

When Should I Submit the FAFSA?

Filling out the FAFSA allows you to acquire funding from the federal government, state agencies, and your university. Because these entities determine and disperse aid at different times, three deadlines exist. The FAFSA generally opens up each year on October 1, so it's a good rule of thumb to get your application submitted shortly after that. Additionally, you must renew your FAFSA each year to accommodate your changing financial situation and prove that you are making progress on your degree or certificate.

See our FAFSA Deadlines Rundown page to learn more about specific FAFSA deadlines and upcoming changes to the October 2022 application.

What Do I Need to File the FAFSA?

To fill out the FAFSA, you need your driver's license (or state identification) and Social Security number. The Office of Federal Student Aid asks for financial documents like your most recent W-2s and federal income tax return. You must also provide current bank statements; investment records for stocks, bonds, and real estate (excluding your primary abode); and farm and business assets.

Additionally, you must submit untaxed income records, which cover things like child support, veterans noneducation benefits, and interest income. If you are a dependent, your parent or guardian must submit these materials, as well. Eligible noncitizens undergo a similar process but use their Alien Registration number in lieu of a Social Security number.

How Do I Fill out the FAFSA?

The easiest way to file the FAFSA is through the Office of Federal Student Aid's online portal. After gathering the necessary documents and information, you can begin the process by creating an FSA ID. This username and password combination allows you to provide an electronic signature, access confidential information, and use the myStudentAid mobile app.

As you create your ID, ensure that you input your name and Social Security number exactly as they appear on the card. An FSA ID autofills certain personal information as you complete the application, preventing common errors. If you are a dependent, one of your parents also needs an FSA ID.

When filling out the FAFSA, double-check to make sure you avoid common mistakes, like typos on personal information.

Most students complete the FAFSA in about an hour. Independent applicants who do not need to provide parental information finish in even less time. The FAFSA consists of five major sections, beginning with student demographics. You then designate which schools should receive your application. Next, you answer dependency questions and, if applicable, provide your parents' demographics.

Finally, you fill out financial information using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to import tax information. Afterward, you sign the application using the relevant FSA ID(s) and confirm submission. The Office of Federal Student Aid also allows you to submit a paper FAFSA by mail.

When filling out the FAFSA, double-check to make sure you avoid common mistakes, like typos on personal information. You should also ensure that you understand the definitions of important terms. Additionally, if applying to new schools, you should consider listing more than one institution (unless you are absolutely sure that you only want to apply to one school); colleges cannot see the other schools on your list and you can always disregard their offers later on.

Common FAFSA Application Questions

Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to apply for financial aid?

Not necessarily. If you are an eligible noncitizen, you can still apply for federal financial aid. However, undocumented students cannot file a FAFSA. These prospective students can still explore funding options through their target schools and through private scholarship sources created specifically for undocumented students.

I am engaged but will be married before school starts. What is my marital status?

You must note your current marital status on the day you file the FAFSA. So if you are not married yet, then you need to report "single." If you get married before attending school, you must inform your school's financial aid office about the change in your marital status.

I am in a same-sex marriage. What is my marital status?

You must report your married status if you were married within a country or state that recognizes same-sex marriage.

I am a transgender student. How do I report my gender?

Unfortunately, offers very little information on how transgender applicants should report their gender. According to a representative from the Federal Student Aid helpline, applicants should select the gender on their birth certificate. If the applicant has legally changed their gender on their birth certificate, they should select that gender. If they have not legally changed their gender, they should select the gender they were born with.

This Forbes article provides more helpful information about loans for transgender students.

I have not registered with Selective Service. Do I need to do this? What if I am transgender?

Male applicants 18 and older must be registered to earn financial aid. If you are not registered, then you can select the "register me" option to automatically enroll. Students can learn about exemptions by visiting the Selective Service System website.

According to the Selective Service System, individuals born female who have changed their gender to male are not required to register. However, U.S. citizens or immigrants born male who have changed their gender to female are still required to register.

Can I still get federal aid if I have been convicted of a crime?

Yes. However, your eligibility may be limited. Depending on your release data and the type of institution you were incarcerated in, your options change. You can learn more by exploring the FAFSA students with criminal convictions page.

Should I consider work study? What is it?

Work study refers to part-time employment opportunities provided by schools to students with financial need. You can receive earnings as a traditional paycheck or automatically put the earnings toward your tuition and academic expenses.

I have not filed my taxes yet. Should I wait to fill out the FAFSA?

No. You can estimate your income, submit the FAFSA, and update your records once you have filed your taxes.

How do I know if I was eligible to fill out a 1040A or 1040EZ?

Applicants should file a 1040A or 1040EZ federal income tax form if they do not own a business, itemize deductions, or file a schedule D. Additional conditions for filling out a 1040A or 1040EZ include receiving self-employment income and making less than $100,000 a year.

I think my family makes too much money to qualify for aid. Should I still fill out the FAFSA?

The federal government examines the big picture before determining eligibility. Since the FAFSA is a free application, everyone should fill it out, regardless of their income level.

My parents aren't giving me any financial support. And they do not claim me on their taxes. Am I still a dependent?

Parental refusal or unwillingness does not change a student's dependency status.

How do I determine the net worth of my investments?

Take the total amount of your investments (such as trust funds, stock options, and bonds) and subtract investment debts to calculate the net worth.

If I do not claim myself as a dependent while filing taxes, should I claim myself as an independent student on my FAFSA?

The Department of Education adheres to different dependency status guidelines than the IRS. Part of dependent status is based on age. To be an independent, you must be 24 years of age or older by December 31st of the school year you are applying for. You can determine your status by following this FAFSA flowchart.

Is there any way I can appeal my dependent status and be considered independent?

Yes. The Office of Federal Student Aid understands that there are special circumstances that can influence your ability to include your parents' information on your FAFSA. Such circumstances include:

  • An abusive and therefore inhospitable home environment
  • Homelessness or the risk of homelessness
  • Incarcerated parents

If you are living under such conditions, you can fill out the special circumstances portion of your application. You also need to contact your school's financial aid office with this information, and they make the final determination on your dependency status.

What do I do if I can't get some of my parents' background information?

You can indicate on your FAFSA if your parents refuse to provide their information. However, this can disqualify you from some forms of federal funding unless you meet the special circumstances described above.

What do I do if my parents do not have Social Security numbers?

You can enter zeroes in the field for their Social Security numbers.

My parents have not filed their taxes yet. Should I wait to fill out the FAFSA?

No. You can still estimate their income, file the FAFSA, and update your records once they have filed their taxes.

My parents are separated/divorced. Do I include both parents' financial information?

You only provide financial information for both parents if they live together. If they do not live together, then you should only report the information for the parent who provided you with the greatest amount of financial support in the last 12 months.

Do I need to include my step-parents' financial information?

Yes, if they are married to your legal parent.

What do I do if my parents refuse to share their financial information?

You can indicate their refusal on your FAFSA. However, this may disqualify you for certain types of financial aid.

What is a dislocated worker?

A dislocated worker describes someone who:

  • Has been laid off
  • Has received unemployment benefits
  • Is self-employed but now unable to find work
  • Is a displaced homemaker
  • Has recently provided unpaid services to a family and is now unemployed or underemployed
Do I need to have already applied to a school to list it on my FAFSA form?

No. You can list schools you have not yet applied to and schools you have not been accepted to yet. If you do not end up applying or getting accepted to a school you listed, that school disregards your form.

What if I need to make changes to the FAFSA after submitting it?

You can log onto the FAFSA website after submitting your application to correct or update your information before midnight CST on September 20th. However, you should pay attention to college due dates. Having all information current by those dates determines how much aid a school gives you.

Do I have to file a FAFSA every year?

Yes, if you wish to be considered for funding that school year.

If my parents sign, are they liable for my loan payments?

No. This signature is only used to verify that your FAFSA information is correct.

What Is Next?

After submitting the FAFSA, you wait for a follow-up report. Later, you receive your financial aid package. In the meantime, make sure you correct any typos or errors and apply for non-governmental awards — especially scholarships. The following section covers additional steps you can take to ensure successful completion of the application process.

How Do I Submit My FAFSA?

You can submit the application online by providing an electronic signature (or your FSA ID) and confirming that the included information is correct to the best of your ability. To submit a paper form, send all necessary documents to the designated address. In either case, you will receive an email report after your FAFSA has been processed.

How Can I Check the Status of My FAFSA Once It Is Submitted?

Regardless of whether you use the online or paper form, you can check the status of your application by logging into your account. To do this, you can use your FSA ID or provide the necessary personal information. Alternatively, you may call the Office of Federal Student Aid Information Center's toll-free number at 1-800-433-3243.

What Is the Student Aid Report?

The Student Aid Report (SAR) displays basic information about your federal student aid eligibility. It includes the final calculation of your estimated family contribution and the Data Release Number, which your school needs to change certain information on your FAFSA. Online applicants can expect their SAR in 3-5 days, while students who submit a paper application need to wait 7-10 days.

What Do I Do With My SAR?

Ensure the accuracy of all the information on the SAR. Your school uses this report to determine what federal and nonfederal aid you receive and may ask you to verify certain aspects of the application. If you do find a mistake, correct and update your FAFSA.

When Can I Expect to Receive My Financial Aid Award Notice?

You will receive a financial aid award notice from your prospective schools after they determine your financial need and overall eligibility. Timelines differ by college, so contact an admissions counselor for details. You can typically expect a letter in late March or early April — May 1 is National College Decision Day.

If I Submit the FAFSA, Am I Obligated to Accept Financial Aid?

You do not need to accept all the awards in your financial aid package. Prioritize free money (scholarships and grants) and earned money (work-study awards). If you must borrow funds, pick federal and state loans first, since they usually provide low and/or static interest rates. The government also maintains forgiveness programs for federal loans.

I Am Still Unsure About Some of the Questions on the FAFSA. Where Can I Get Help Filling It Out?

The Office of Federal Student Aid provides comprehensive resources to help you at every step of the FAFSA process. You can also ask for help from your high school counselor or college admissions advisor. Additionally, certain educational websites, like Khan Academy, offer free guides and how-to videos related to financial aid applications.

Hear from one of our experts on which factors are the most important for you to consider when choosing a college. Students launched the #BlackburnTakeover movement on October 12 with a sit-in and social media campaign documenting poor living conditions. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions, a group founded by a conservative, anti-affirmative action activist. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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