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An Overview of the FAFSA and the Application Process

By Peterson's Staff updated on Tuesday, April 08, 2014

There's a lot of federal money available to help you pay for school, but you can't be considered for any of it until you complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (the FAFSA). You should be able to fill it out on the Web or pick one up at your high school guidance office, public library, local college, or the U.S. Department of Education. The FAFSA is a first step in determining what financial aid award you might receive.

The online FAFSA is a great option

The fastest way to apply for federal student aid is over the Internet using the interactive FAFSA application on the Web at www.fafsa.ed.gov. This site hosts the online financial aid application, as well as an abundance of information about filling it out. You can look up the codes of the schools you're interested in, find out what information you need to gather, and sign up for a PIN number that serves as your electronic signature on the application. (If you're not applying as an independent student, you and one of your parents must apply for the PIN.)

This financial aid application is not too complicated

As long as none of the schools on your list require the CSS PROFILE, the application process is pretty simple. All you need to do is complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1 of the year you plan to enroll and before any school-imposed deadlines, which are often in February or March. Keep in mind that you can’t submit your application for the year you plan to attend prior to January of that same year. The process is easier if you have all your financial records from the previous year available, but if you don’t, it’s entirely OK to use estimated figures.

There are a number of items you should gather before filling out the FAFSA. If you don’t have all of these things available, use estimates. You’ll need to submit changes later when the documents become available, but making changes is an easy process, so don’t let that deter you.

Depending on your circumstances, you will need:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your driver's license, if you have one
  • Your W-2 Forms and other records of money earned in the previous year
  • Your (and your spouse's, if you are married) previous year's Federal Income Tax Return: IRS Forms 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, 1040 Telefile, foreign tax return, or tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, or the Federated States of Micronesia
  • Your parents’ previous year’s Federal Income Tax Return, if you're a dependent
  • Your previous year's records of untaxed income, including Social Security, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, welfare, and/or veterans benefits records
  • Your bank statements from the previous year
  • Your business and investment mortgage information; business and farm records; and stock, bond, and other investment records from the previous year
  • Your alien registration card, if you are not a U.S. citizen

 

The FAFSA application results in your Student Aid Report

After your FAFSA application is reviewed, you'll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), the next step toward receiving financial aid. The SAR includes all of the information you reported on your FAFSA and shows your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. The EFC is a result of a calculation by the federal government that is used to measure your family's financial strength and its eligibility to receive need-based aid. The formula is often referred to as the "needs analysis" because of this. The EFC is not the amount you owe the school per se, but a measure of where you stand relative to the entire nation. It is used to determine the types and amount of aid you are eligible to receive.

If you provided an e-mail address, the SAR will be sent to you electronically. If not, you’ll receive a paper copy in the mail. Review it and check to see if the information you reported is accurately reflected on the SAR. If you used estimated numbers to complete the FAFSA financial aid application, you may have to resubmit the SAR with corrections. The schools you designated on the FAFSA will receive the information you reported and use it to determine your financial aid award. In many instances, one or more school may request copies of your and/or your parents' federal income tax returns or other documents to verify the information you reported. Submit any additional documents requested as soon as you can so your financial aid decision isn't delayed. The longer you wait, the greater the chance that less aid will be available to assign to you.

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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