No one likes to think about money when getting all of their college ducks in order, but unless you’re that 20-year-old guy from Florida who recently won a $451 million lottery jackpot, you’re going to have to consider how you’ll pay for your next year of schooling. Luckily, it’s that time of year when there’s one document in particular that can help you jump-start the process: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
This application, which is usually made available in October of the previous year before the year you plan to enroll, lets you know whether you’re eligible for a host of federal, state, and college financial aid based on your financial need, including grants that don’t have to be paid back (such as the Pell Grant), subsidized and non-subsidized loans (including the Stafford and Perkins loans), and work-study initiatives.
Three Options for Filling out the FAFSA
There are three ways you can complete your FAFSA: online at fafsaed.gov (the recommended process), via a paper copy (sometimes available at your high school or college or local library, but mainly right from the US Department of Education by calling 800-433-3243), or by filling in and mailing a PDF FAFSA—you can either print it out and fill it in manually, or use the screen-fillable option online, which allows you to type in the fields directly in the PDF.
What You’ll Need
You’ll need a whole bunch of info at your disposal while filling out this form, which will take you an hour or so to do. This info includes your Social Security number; financial info, in the form of bank statements, tax forms, mortgage and investment records, and government aid, for both yourself and your parents, if you’re still a dependent; and your driver’s license number, if you have a license. In addition to all of that data, you’ll also need to input every single college or university you’re interested in, even if you haven’t yet applied to them, so make sure you have your higher-education dream list on hand as well.
The Student Aid Report
Once you fill out the FAFSA, you’ll receive a report a few days later called a SAR, or Student Aid Report, either by email or regular mail. This document details what you and your family will be expected to contribute (aka the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC) and what financial aid possibilities may be available for your particular situation. Check this document carefully for mistakes, as this will be sent to all of the colleges and universities you put down on your application. Colleges will use this info when they work up their financial aid letters to you upon acceptance.
If you’re already in college and still seeking federal aid for the 2017-2018 school year, you can still fill out an online FAFSA for federal aid to meet the June 30, 2018, deadline. For the 2018-2019 school year, you have more buffer time for federal aid (that deadline falls on June 30, 2019), but deadlines for individual states and colleges vary and are fast approaching; most states set their deadlines early in the calendar year, usually in February and March, though some push further into the spring and summer. That means state deadlines for 2018 and 2019 are coming up within a month or two—be sure to check on the fafsaedu.gov site or with colleges you’ll be attending or hope to attend for specifics.
Some final warnings: Don’t get suckered into FAFSA preparation companies that charge for their services and don’t warn you that you can do this for free yourself or that offer a guarantee they can get you a scholarship. And don’t neglect to fill out the FAFSA because you think you or your family won’t qualify for any of the big federal grants or loans. States and colleges use the application to make their own determinations as well. You don’t want to cheat yourself out of financial aid that could be yours for the taking!