What Is the FAFSA?

You could lose out on valuable financial aid for college costs if you skip filling out the FAFSA.

Written by Kat Tretina / June 9, 2022
Reviewed by Mark Kantrowitz

Quick Bites

  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a critical first step in applying for financial aid.
  • It’s what you have to complete to qualify for grants, scholarships and loans.
  • It usually takes 30 to 60 minutes to fill out.
  • The majority of students qualify for some form of financial aid.

If college is a topic of discussion in your house, how to pay for the costs is probably a hot topic, too.

You’ve heard that college is expensive, but you may not realize just how pricey it is. The total cost of attendance for the 2021-2022 academic year—inclusive of tuition, fees, textbooks, transportation costs and room and board—averaged $27,330 for students at public in-state universities and $55,850 for students who opted for private universities.[1]

If you’re like most families, you’ll need help covering that cost. To qualify for financial aid, you must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If it seems overwhelming or you aren’t sure how to fill it out, here’s what you need to know.

Inside this article

  1. What is the FAFSA?
  2. What aid can I get?
  3. Who’s eligible?
  4. What documents are required?
  5. When does the FAFSA open?
  6. When is the FAFSA deadline?
  7. Complete the FAFSA in 5 steps
  8. What happens after I submit it?
  9. Getting the maximum aid

What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is a federal form that current and prospective college students have to fill out annually to qualify for financial aid.

The FAFSA asks questions about where you plan on going to school, your family’s income and your family’s assets. Based on that information, colleges and universities decide what financial aid you’re eligible for during the upcoming academic year.

What kind of financial aid can I get through the FAFSA?

Filling out the FAFSA pays off. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 86% of first-time, full-time undergraduate students were awarded financial aid.[2] When people think of financial aid, they often think of student loans. But by filling out the FAFSA, you may qualify for other types of aid[3]:

Scholarships: Scholarships are usually issued based on your achievements, such as your academic or athletic performance. However, some are need-based, and schools and nonprofit organizations may use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for an award. Some require the FAFSA as a prerequisite for merit-based aid, but do not use the information on the FAFSA. Rather, they want to be sure the student gets all of the financial aid for which they are eligible.

Grants: Unlike student loans, grants don’t have to be repaid. They’re usually awarded based on your demonstrated financial need rather than your academic performance.

Work-Study Programs: Depending on your finances, you may be eligible for a federal, state or college work-study program. With this option, you get a part-time job related to your major. You work a certain number of hours per week—determined by the financial aid office—and you can use your income to cover some of your education costs.

Student Loans: If you have college expenses not covered by grants, scholarships, work-study or your own savings, you may be eligible for federal or private student loans.

Who is eligible for the FAFSA?

To fill out the FAFSA and qualify for federal financial aid, you must meet the following requirements:

You must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or eligible noncitizen.

You must be enrolled or accepted for enrollment at a school with an eligible degree or certificate program.

You must have earned a high school diploma—or be eligible to graduate with one on time—or its equivalent.

You must have a valid Social Security Number (SSN) or Alien Registration Number (ARN) unless you are from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia or the Republic of Palau.[4]

What documents are required for the FAFSA?

The FAFSA asks questions about the finances of you and your family. To fill it out, you’ll need to have:

  • Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID (one for the student and one for the parent)

  • Social Security Number or Alien Registration Number

  • Federal income tax returns, W-2 and 1099 statements

  • Records of untaxed income

  • Cash, checking and savings account balances for yourself and your parents

  • Information about investments other than the home you live in and qualified retirement plans[5]

As an undergraduate college student, you are required to submit your parents’ information even if they don’t provide you with any financial support—and even if you live with someone else.

If your parents are divorced and live apart, provide information about the parent you live with more. If you split your time equally between them, submit information about the parent who provided more financial support during the past 12 months.

If your parents won’t help you fill out the FAFSA or won’t give you their tax return information or details about their assets, submit the FAFSA with what information you have and reach out to your college’s financial aid office to discuss your options.[6]

Tip: For all applicants in 2019-20, the average application time was 34 minutes and 22 seconds. For first-time dependent student applicants, however, it was 57 minutes and 33 seconds. For first-time independent student applicants, it was 23 minutes and 27 seconds. For returning dependent student applicants, it was 42 minutes and 9 seconds. For returning independent student applicants, it was 18 minutes and 53 seconds.[7]

When is the FAFSA for 2022 available?

Like with applying for private scholarships or state grants, completing the FAFSA requires paying attention to deadlines: The FAFSA for the 2022-2023 academic year was made available on October 1, 2021. In fact, it’s made available on Oct. 1 annually for the following academic year.

When is the submission deadline for the FAFSA?

The federal deadline for FAFSA submissions is June 30, 2023, and you can expect a similar deadline for future years. (Plan to complete the FAFSA annually, not just for your first year of school.)

However, colleges and states may have different deadlines. For example, Connecticut’s is February 15, 2022.[8] Contact your (prospective) school’s admissions and financial aid offices for specifics.

Some financial aid that relies on your FAFSA information is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, and that’s partly why it’s so critical to submit it in a timely fashion: The earlier you complete it, the better your options.

Complete the FAFSA in 4 steps

At first glance, the FAFSA can seem overwhelming.

However, the FAFSA is easier than you may think. While you can fill out a paper version of the FAFSA, the simplest way to complete it is to submit it online. To submit the FAFSA, follow these five steps:

  1. Create an FSA ID: You can create an FSA ID online. If your parents are helping you, make sure you have a separate FSA ID from your parents.

  2. Fill out the form: You can start your FAFSA application at FAFSA.gov. The form will prompt you to enter your personal information, including your legal name, address and Social Security Number. It will also ask for your parents’ information.

  3. List your selected schools: Add every college you’re considering to your FAFSA. You can add up to 10 schools. If you’re planning on applying to more than 10 schools, enter your top 10 choices on the FAFSA and submit it. Once you receive your Student Aid Report (SAR), call the Federal Student Aid Information Center and request additional schools be added. You can reach the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800-433-3243. You can also log in to StudentAid.gov to replace the initial set of 10 schools with 10 new colleges, repeating this each time you receive a new SAR.

  4. Sign and submit: After entering all of the required information, review each field. If everything is correct, sign and submit the FAFSA with your FSA ID. If you do not have an FSA ID, you will need to print, sign and mail a signature sheet.

What happens after I submit my FAFSA?

After you submit the FAFSA, you can check its status by logging in to FAFSA.gov with your FSA ID. You can also call the Federal Student Aid Information Center for an update. Your application may be “processing,” “require further action” or have a “missing signature.” In most cases, the status will be “processed successfully,” and there’s nothing else you need to do.

About three days to three weeks after submitting the FAFSA, you’ll receive your SAR. It’s a summary of the data you submitted. Review the SAR and ensure there are no mistakes. If there are any errors, contact your college’s financial aid office or call the Federal Student Aid Information Center for help correcting them.[9]

Once colleges accept you, they’ll send you an award letter or notification detailing your financial aid options, including what portion of the cost you’re expected to cover. The letter may include a mix of grants, scholarships, work-study programs and student loans.

Tip: Some colleges require students to fill out the CSS profile to qualify for financial aid. Contact your school’s financial aid office to ensure you submit the required applications.

Getting the maximum amount of financial aid

While college is expensive, you don’t have to shoulder the cost on your own. There are federal, state and institutional forms of financial aid that can make college more affordable. By filling out the FAFSA, you can qualify for scholarships, grants, work-study programs and federal student loans, helping you finance your education and earn a degree.

“Students who complete the FAFSA are more likely to enroll in college and to graduate from college,” says Mark Kantrowitz, a nationally recognized expert on student financial aid.

Don’t let the FAFSA overwhelm you. If you need additional help, look for a College Goal Sunday event in your state; they’re typically offered by your state education agency. Look on the FormYourFuture.org website, run by the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), for resources in your state. You can also ask your high school guidance counselor or your college’s financial aid office for help. Using these resources will allow you to get the maximum amount of aid you’re entitled to for the upcoming school year.

Article Sources
  1. Jennifer Ma and Matea Pender, “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021,” The College Board, https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2021.pdf.
  2. “Financial Aid,” National Center for Education Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=31.
  3. “Types of Financial Aid,” Office of Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/types.
  4. “Who Gets Aid?” Office of Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/eligibility.
  5. “FAFSA Process,” Office of Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.gov/sites/default/files/fafsa-process.pdf.
  6. “Reporting Parent Information,” Office of Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.gov/apply-for-aid/fafsa/filling-out/parent-info.
  7. “FSA Data Center,” Office of Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.gov/sites/default/files/fsawg/datacenter/library/2019-2020-application-demographics.xls.
  8. “FAFSA Deadlines,” Office of Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.gov/apply-for-aid/fafsa/fafsa-deadlines.
  9. “How to Correct or Update Your FAFSA Form,” Office of Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.gov/apply-for-aid/fafsa/review-and-correct/correct.

About the Authors

Kat Tretina

Kat Tretina

Kat is dedicated to teaching people how to pay down debt, boost their incomes and reduce financial stress. Her work has been published by Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, Forbes Advisor and more.

Full bio
Mark Kantrowitz

Mark Kantrowitz

Mark Kantrowitz is a nationally-recognized expert on student financial aid, the FAFSA, scholarships, 529 plans and student loans. His mission is to deliver practical information, advice and tools to students and their families so they can make smarter, more informed decisions.

Full bio

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