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Free Application for Federal Student Aid

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The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)  is a critical part of the college application process. But unlike brainstorming your college essay, this component is relatively straightforward—and filling it out can be key for affording the schools on your list.

Historically, the form has taken most families less than an hour to complete, and now, thanks to the FAFSA Simplification Act, the process may be even faster. But it does require a little bit of work before you fill out the form. Knowing how the FAFSA works, what information is needed, and how the form considers your family finances will make actually filling out the form a breeze.  

Unfortunately, it’s all too common to assume you won’t qualify for aid because of your family’s financial situation, background, or other personal circumstances so you skip the application entirely. According to an analysis  by the National College Attainment Network, 47% of the class of 2022 who were eligible for Pell Grants (a type of grant awarded to students displaying financial need) did not complete the FAFSA. This meant that a whopping $3.6 billion in free grant money was left on the table. 

The FAFSA is also useful to fill out even if you don’t think your family qualifies for need-based aid because it also opens up access to non-need-based aid like unsubsidized federal loans and scholarships.

Bottom line? The FAFSA could help alleviate some of the financial burden of college, and you should complete it every year you are in college because most people qualify for some aid. For more handy tips, check out our FAFSA assistant, which will give you guidance and tips to completing the application based on your individual situation.

Some Important Things to Know

2. Different states and colleges have different deadlines. There are federal and state deadlines, and colleges may also have their own cutoff points. Check on deadlines here. Some schools operate on a first-come, first-served basis, so it’s a good idea to submit the form as soon as it becomes available on October 1 each year.

3. Your family's income does not determine whether you are eligible to file the FAFSA. There is no income cap to determine who can and cannot fill out the FAFSA and qualify for aid.

4. You will not need your birth certificate to complete the FAFSA, but you will need to enter your date of birth.

5. You can submit to 20 colleges at a time. While filling out the FAFSA online, you may list up to 20 colleges (10 on the paper form). However, after you receive your FAFSA Submission Summary, formally known as the Student Aid Report (SAR), you can add more. The fastest way to do this is through your FAFSA account. Find instructions for adding schools here.

6. Most students WILL need their parents' financial information to complete the FAFSA, but IF you’re an independent student, you will not. It’s important to note, however, that the FAFSA application has strict criteria for what constitutes an independent student. You are not necessarily independent if you live by yourself or are planning to cover college by yourself. If you are a dependent student, you can submit your FAFSA without your parents’ financial information if you have a special circumstance (e.g., no contact, incarceration) or if your parents are unwilling to share their information. Make sure you follow the instructions for submitting the FAFSA based on your situation, and follow up with the financial aid offices of the schools you’re applying to and complete the college admissions application.

7. In the past, male students would have to register with the Selective Service to complete the FAFSA. This is no longer the case and is no longer a question on the form.

8. You can take out private student loans even if you don’t file a FAFSA. However, the FAFSA gives you access to federal and state grants, scholarships, and federal loans, so it’s a good idea to fill it out every year you are in school.

9. If your parents are divorced or separated, you will report the financial information for the parent who has provided the most financial support for the tax year two years prior to the FAFSA application. For example, for the 2024-25 school year, you would provide information from 2022. This parent may not be the parent you primarily live with.

10. One of the many common myths about the FAFSA is that is is for federal aid only. The data submitted on the FAFSA will determine your eligibility for federal aid, that's true. However, it can also be used by the state to determine if you qualify for state aid, and colleges may use the information to award grants and scholarships.

11. In some cases, non-US citizens, including green card holders, may be eligible for financial aid. The citizenship or immigration status of your parents will also not affect your financial aid eligibility. Your parents do not need a Social Security number for you to fill out the FAFSA. 

Remember: You must submit a FAFSA form every school year you want to apply for federal student aid. The FAFSA renewal is a way for you to save time and reapply without filling out the whole application each year.

Four years from now, you will probably forget we ever had this lesson. I'm sure though your other teachers and high school counselor will talk about it when you are a senior, and I am long forgotten.

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