The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the single most important part of the financial aid process. This single application is the key for unlocking need-based financial aid at colleges and universities in the United States. Through the FAFSA, students can be eligible for everything from college grants, federal student loans, state financial aid, and even work-study.
This FAFSA 101 Guide will make the process of completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid simple and stress-free. Let’s dive in!
Dates to Remember
It is important to follow all of the FAFSA deadlines! We recommend putting them on your calendar as soon as possible:
🗓 FAFSA Opens: October 1st
⏱ State Specific Deadlines: Varies by State
⏱Federal Deadline: June 30th
Once these dates are on your calendar, you can get started on the actual application…
Step One: Create Your FSA ID
Your Federal Student Aid ID is a unique username and password that will allow you to access the FSA online platform and is your legal signature for filling out forms. Create your FSA ID here.
If you are a dependent student, your parents will also need to create their own FSA ID.
Step Two: Gather the necessary materials
Once you have created your FSA ID, you will need to gather the necessary materials to actually fill out the actual application. Here is a list of the necessary materials for both dependent and independent students.
Step Three: Answer the FAFSA Questions
Now you are ready to answer the actual questions. We have broken down the FAFSA questions into a few sections to assist you as you work your way through the application:
- Questions 1-31 (All Applicants Must Complete)
- Questions 32-45 (All Applicants Must Complete)
- Questions 46–58 (All Applicants Must Complete)
- Questions 59-94 (Dependent Applicants Only)
- Questions 95–102 (Independent Applicants Only)
Note that students and parents do not need to complete all of these sections. Questions 59 through 94 are only for dependent applicants, while questions 95 through 102 are only for independent applicants.
Questions 1-31 (All Applicants Must Complete)
The first section of the Free Application for Student Aid or FAFSA asks you some basic questions such as your first name, last name, your address, and contact information. You will also have to record your Social Security number as well as your driver’s license number in this section. This is why it is important to have both your Social Security Card and your driver’s license on-hand as you work your way through the FAFSA.
A few questions we wanted to highlight for clarification are:
Question 22: Do you want us to register you with the Selective Service System?
The Selective Service System is a government agency that keeps a record of all individuals potentially subject to military conscription. This applies to males between the ages of 18 and 25, so if you are not in that age range or a female, this does not apply to you.
If you are a male between the ages of 18 and 25, you will likely have to select “Yes” since there are very few exceptions to this policy. If you think you are not required to register, you can visit the Selective Service System website.
Question 29: What will your college grade level be when you begin the 2019–2020 school year?
This question is referring to your grade-level and not the number of years you have been in college. If you are a high school senior, you should select “Never attended college / 1st yr”.
Question 31: Are you interested in being considered for work- study?
If you are awarded work-study, you are entitled to a part-time job opportunity on-campus. This will require you to find a job on-campus and put in enough hours per week. We recommend that all students select “yes” to this question so you can be considered for work-study. Remember, you can always decline any part of your financial aid package, so if you don’t want a job in college, you can simply say no.
Questions 32-45 (All Applicants Must Complete)
The second section of the FAFSA is focused on your personal financial situation as a student. For the 2019-2020 FAFSA, you will complete this section with your 2018 tax forms (remember, the FAFSA uses financial data from the prior, prior year and not the prior year).
Here are few tips for completing this section:
If you did not file taxes in 2018, you can leave the following questions blank:
Question 36: What was your adjusted gross income for 2018?
Question 37: What was your income tax for 2018?
Question 38: How many exemptions did you claim?
>>>FAFSA Tip: If you did file taxes in 2018, you can use the FAFSA IRS Data Retrieval Tool. This is a really great tool that will save you time while completing your FAFSA. Once you retrieve the data, it will auto populate the following questions in this section with the necessary details:
- Question 36: What was your adjusted gross income for 2018?
- Question 37: What was your income tax for 2018?
- Question 38: How many exemptions did you claim?
- Question 44a: What were your total education credits?
- Question 45b: How much did you pay to your IRA or Keogh?
- Question 45d: What was your total tax-exempt interest income?
- Question 45e: What were your total untaxed portions of IRA distributions?
- Question 45f: What were your total untaxed portions of pensions?
Question 41: What is the total current balance of your cash, savings, and checking accounts?
This is the total balance of cash, savings, and checking accounts as of the day you submit your FAFSA. If the total is 0 or negative, you should enter 0 as the current balance.
Questions 46–58 (All Applicants Must Complete)
The next section of the FAFSA will assess whether you are an independent or dependent student for the purposes of financial aid.
The big distinction between applying as a dependent student is that your parents’ financial information is considered. If you are an independent student, the only financial information considered will be your own (unless you are married, in which case your spouse’s financial information will be considered).
These questions will determine whether you meet any of the criteria for being an independent student which includes:
- At least 24 years old
- A graduate or professional student
- A veteran or current member of the armed services
- An orphan or ward of the court
- Someone with legal dependents other than a spouse
- An emancipated minor
- Someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless
So, if you answer YES to any of the questions 46 through 58, you are considered an independent student. If you answered NO to all of the questions, you will be considered a dependent student.
Questions 59-94 (Dependent Applicants Only)
If you are a dependent student, the next section of the FAFSA aims to understand your parents’ financial situation. This will help determine the portion of your parents’ assets or income that should be available to contribute to the cost of your college education.
>>>Pro Tip: Your parents can use the IRS Data Retrieval tool in order to link their tax return to the FAFSA (this is highly recommended).
FAFSA Question 59 asks about your parents’ marital status. There are five options that you can select:
- Never Married
- Unmarried and both parents living together
- Married or remarried
- Divorced or separated
If your parents are divorced, you will need to determine which parent’s financial information should be reported on the FAFSA.
Here are a few scenarios and how they impact the FAFSA:
|Family Situation||Who’s financial information |
should be included
|My parents are divorced, but |
still living together.
|I have lived with one parent more |
than the other in the past 12
|The parent who you have lived |
with for the most time
|I have lived with both parents |
equally over the past 12
|The parent who has |
provided more financial
support over the past 12
Questions 95–102 (Independent Applicants Only)
If you are an independent student, this next section of the FAFSA aims to understand whether you qualify for any supplemental government assistance for living expenses including:
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Free or Reduced Price School Lunch
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children
Participation in these programs may qualify you for financial aid from the federal government. Remember, you only need to complete this section if you responded “yes” to any of the questions in the FAFSA dependency section.
Step Four: Add schools to the FAFSA
Once you have completed the questions, you will need to actually send it off to the colleges! Question 103 on the FAFSA will ask you to report the specific colleges that you want to send the FAFSA to. Every college has a unique code that you will need to enter on the FAFSA (you can find those codes here). You should prioritize any colleges with earlier application deadlines, as well as public colleges and universities in your state.
>>>It may look like you can only list 10 colleges, but you can add more with these instructions!
Step Five: Submit the FAFSA by the necessary deadline
The final questions, questions 104-108, will ask you the date the FAFSA was completed, your signature, and if you are a dependent student, your parent’s signature. Also, if you paid for assistance when completing the FAFSA, then the person you paid for assistance must provide some information.
While the Federal FAFSA deadline is June 30th, different states have different deadlines. You will want to make sure that you are minding the specific deadlines. This is why we recommend that you submit your application as soon as possible. Remember, it is a free application and there is no downside to applying early.
If you still have questions, you can get in touch with the the Department of Education. They offer free FAFSA support via live chat, e-mail, and phone. If you have specific questions, you should contact the Department of Education as soon as possible.
>>>Don’t forget about applying for college-specific merit scholarships–these awards are available in addition to need-based financial aid!
>>>Search for private outside scholarships through our Scholarship Search Tool