Going Back to School

Need Help Filling Out the FAFSA? Ace the Process with These 7 Simple Steps

If you’re going back to school, cost is one of the most important and most stressful considerations. The good news is there is over $150 billion (yes, BILLION) available in federal grants, loans and work-study funds.

The key to accessing that money is through something called the FAFSA.

If you want to utilize federal financial aid to offset the cost of going back to school or pursuing a master’s or doctorate degree, you have to fill out The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application determines your eligibility for federal financial aid programs by determining the difference between the expected cost of your schooling and the amount you can be expected to contribute toward your education.

Types of Aid The FAFSA Affects

The FAFSA determines your eligibility and gives you access to apply for both federal grants and loans including, but not limited to:

  • Federal Pell Grants
  • Subsidized Stafford Loans
  • Federal Perkins Loans
  • Federal Subsidized Educational Opportunity Grants
  • Federal Work-Study Opportunities

While it may seem straightforward, it’s anything but. And making a mistake on this form could mean the difference between going to school, or staying put.

Struggling to understand the FAFSA process? Not sure when or how to file? We’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know about the FAFSA so that you can maximize the benefits you’re eligible to receive.

Step 1: Know When to File the FAFSA

If you want financial aid, you have to fill out the FAFSA each year that you plan to attend school. And when it comes to filling, one of the most common FAFSA questions is related to when to file.

Starting with the 2017 school year, the FAFSA will be released 3 months earlier than in the past (in October, rather than January) in order to be better aligned with college application schedules. This means that you can apply in October if you’re planning on starting school in January.

Chart showing the FAFSA filing deadlines

The table above provides an overview of the upcoming FAFSA deadlines, however bear in mind that you will also have to consider the individual federal, state, and college deadlines. You can find this information on the Federal Student Aid site.

Ready to file the FAFSA? The best way to do it is online. Head over to the FAFSA website and start your application.

PRO TIP: The old adage about the early bird and the worm is true. Simply put, the key to success is to apply early. Most funding is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so be first, or as close to it as possible.

Step 2: Get Your FAFSA ID

Now that you know when to file, it’s time to start the process by creating your FAFSA ID.

This ID is crucial. It is used to confirm your identity (thereby reducing the possibility of fraudulent use of your private information). And it also acts as your electronic signature on all online federal student aid forms.

It only takes a couple of minutes to set it up. Head over to Federal Student Aid website to get your ID.

PRO TIP: It takes up to three days for a FAFSA ID to become usable, so apply early to give yourself some lead time.

Step 3: Know What Tax Year To Use When You File

To determine your financial state and the level of aid that you will need to go to school, the FAFSA will ask for your taxable income from the previous year.

You’ll need to ensure you provide accurate information on any primary wages, tips and secondary income sources that you filed. An inaccurate answer here may result in delays in your application, or even a denial.

Not sure what tax year you need for your FAFSA? Here’s a helpful guide:

Year Attending College (School Year) FAFSA Submission Period Year for which Income Tax Info is Required

Chart showing the FAFSA tax information requirements

PRO TIP: Don’t want to scour the basement to find your filing documents? Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically grab the correct tax information.

Step 4: Gather the Information You Will Need

As you complete the application, you’ll be asked a variety of questions about your personal and financial information. Having this information on hand will help you to complete the form on time, and prevent you from having to save a bookmark and come back to it later.

Make sure you have everything on this list when you sit down to file:

Chart showing the documents you need to complete your FAFSA.

For a more comprehensive list of the documents you will need, click here.

PRO TIP: If you decide to mail in your application, remember to hold on to your originals, as you may need them again. Do not mail your records to Federal Student Aid.

Step 5: Establish Your Dependency Status

Do you qualify as a Dependent or an Independent Student?

Your dependency status is important because independent students can potentially be eligible for more financial aid. The requirements to be considered an independent student include, but are not limited to, the following. You must:

● Be 24 years of age or older by Dec. 31 of the award year
● Be a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces or serving on active duty for other than training purposes
● Be a graduate or professional student
● Be married
● Have legal dependents other than a spouse

Step 6: List Your Colleges

For your application to move forward, you will need to list at least one college that you’re interested in attending.

The college(s) that you list will receive your FAFSA information directly, and use it to determine the kinds of aid for which you qualify, and how much you are eligible to receive. If you apply online, you may list up to 10 schools.

PRO TIP: Although listing them in a specific order is not important for federal aid, for state aid, you might be required to provide your list in a particular order. You can find detailed state-by-state information on those requirements here.

Step 7: Complete, Sign, and Submit Your Application

Now that you have gathered all your data, input it carefully.

Be especially detail-oriented when entering your basic personal details. Once you have entered all required information, the next step is to sign and submit the form.

What To Do Before You Hit Submit

Before you submit your application, check, double-check and triple-check. Then check again.

Many applications are denied because the applicant entered the wrong name on the form. Common errors include:

● Failing to sign the FAFSA – use your FAFSA ID (username & password) to sign.
● Entering the wrong social security number.
● Providing incorrect tax information.
● Not including yourself in the number of people in your household.
● Inputting the incorrect name (as we mentioned before). Hint: no nicknames. Your name should be entered as it appears on your social security card.

Many of these errors can be avoided by using the online application form, rather than a paper application. The online form has skip logic that provides prompts to help ensure that all necessary information is provided.

Don’t Let The FAFSA Confuse You.

While filling out the FAFSA may seem like a straightforward process, it’s anything but simple. Small mistakes or misreporting information may cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars in free money.