FAFSA: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid

If you are one of the 14 million Americans in need of financial aid for college, your first step is filling out the FAFSA – that’s the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The application is used to calculate your family’s ability to pay for your college degree, which is also known as your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). Calculations are based on income, assets and other factors, such as the number of other dependents in college.

To be eligible for any federal financial aid, including grants and student loans, you must complete the FAFSA. Most colleges also rely on your FAFSA when deciding on the allocation of its own college scholarships, plus federal and state financial assistance.

Operated by the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), the FAFSA can be completed online or on paper (most college financial aid offices have copies available). The Office of Federal Student Aid recommends filing online, however, since your application can be verified more quickly and your EFC can be calculated faster. The schools you are applying to will also get your results earlier.

Once your FAFSA has been verified and reviewed, a Student Aid Report (SAR) will be compiled. The SAR includes your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) and any federal aid you qualify for. Your SAR will be sent to your school within 2-3 weeks if you file online; if you file by mail, it will take 4-6 weeks for your SAR to be completed.

Tips for Completing the FAFSA

Completing the FAFSA online should take about 60-90 minutes, once you’ve gathered all the documentation you need, which includes:

  • Social Security Number(s): Yours, your spouse’s – if you are married, and your parents’ – if they still claim you as a dependent
  • Your driver’s license
  • W2: Yours, your spouse’s and your parents’
  • Federal Income Tax Return – from the most recent year
  • Your parents’ Federal Income Tax Return, if they claim you as a dependent
  • Records of all untaxed income, such as social security and military benefits
  • Recent bank statements
  • Recent statements about any investments you hold

For a complete list of documents, visit the FAFSA website.

As you work through your FAFSA application, complete all sections in order, according to the instructions. If you have any questions, each page has a Live Help button or you can call FAFSA’s Customer Service line at 1-800-4-FED-AID.

Also make sure that you apply for a PIN number, which you will use in lieu of a signature to complete your FAFSA.

Before submitting your FAFSA, print a copy for your records.

The federal deadline for the FAFSA is June 30th, although most state and private schools have much earlier cut-offs. The FAFSA is available from January 1.

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