What is meant by “You can’t win if you don’t play”? Simply put, if you want a financial aid award from the federal or state government, you must submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA application. You have an opportunity to receive thousands of dollars of financial aid that is based on family income (need-based aid) if you are eligible—and the FAFSA is the key to being identified as eligible.

Don’t think you’re eligible for need-based funding? Can you guarantee what will happen to you or your family tomorrow or the next day? Such foresight is extremely rare. So why not have a FAFSA on file even if you think you or your folks make too much. An on-file FAFSA will be your backup, should any family emergencies arise.

How do you get started with your FAFSA application?

FAFSA applications are readily available through college financial aid offices and high school guidance counselors. You can also fill out this first-step financial aid application online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. The online application makes the application process faster and more accurate. The federal Department of Education says that using the online form shortens the process by 7 to 14 days.

If you apply online, you and/or your parents can “sign” the application by using an electronic PIN “signature.” You no longer have to print out a signature page and mail it in, and this helps speed things up even more.  The government will send your PIN via e-mail and by regular mail, so make sure to give them an e-mail address. It will take about one to three business days to receive your PIN electronically. You will use the same PIN number to manage your financial aid throughout your college years.

Your financial aid award depends on this rule: get there early

Be aware that there are limits to how much state and federal financial aid money is available each year, and the rule is “first come, first served.” You certainly do not want to be at the end of the serving line only to find out that there is nothing left. January is the month to be the first in line if you are applying to colleges for enrollment the following fall. You can submit your FAFSA throughout the following months, but the probability of funding success diminishes significantly as each month goes by.

Even if your family has yet to file the previous year’s tax returns, plan to submit your FAFSA in January. Estimating income is OK, so don’t let that hang you up early in the process. If you need to make changes, you’ll be able to make them later. If asked to verify their income, every FAFSA filer has to submit their tax information. So be prepared and keep records of all your income statements and tax documents.

Where will your FAFSA go?

Your completed FAFSA is sent to a Central Processing System (CPS). The CPS analyzes the information and transmits the results of the application to you, the school, and to the state financial aid agency. A document called a Student Aid Report (SAR) is sent to you. It summarizes the information you entered on your FAFSA and displays your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). When you get your SAR, look over the information to ensure that it’s accurate. If something is not correct, make the necessary changes. Be sure to keep a copy of your FAFSA application and SAR for future reference. If you don’t agree with the EFC, you will need to discuss your concerns with a college financial aid counselor as soon as possible.

The results of your FAFSA application can initially be sent electronically to as many as 10 colleges. If you wish to send information to more than 10, you must first check with the original 10 schools to make sure they received your FAFSA information. After they have your information, you can go online and enter additional schools.

The FAFSA application is your first step; there may be others

In the end, the FAFSA may not be the only form that you will need to submit, but it is the first step everyone should take. Some colleges require another form called the CSS Profile. Others may want you to complete their own institutional financial aid application in addition to a FAFSA and, sometimes, the CSS Profile. You need to ask each college what they require and when they want it. Take ownership of the aid application process. Remember: You can’t win if you don’t play.