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Applying to College? Here’s Your Stress-Free Guide to Filling Out the FAFSA

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Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the the FAFSA, is a rite of passage for college students, whether they’re attending a trade school near home or heading across the country to work on a bachelor’s degree.

It’s become easier to fill out in recent years — mostly by allowing you to use older tax data instead of making estimations and corrections — but filling out a financial aid application still isn’t anyone’s idea of a fun evening at home.

In fact, NerdWallet recently discovered that 1.4 million members of the high school class of 2014 didn’t fill out the FAFSA at all. Those students are going to college without their piece of a financial-aid pie worth $2.7 billion.

But that’s why we’re here. Behold: Your ultimate guide to filling out the FAFSA.

FAFSA’s Giving You a Head Start This Year

The form is now available earlier than ever before, starting Oct. 1 instead of the typical Jan. 1.

Instead of hurrying to do your taxes in January to be able to submit an accurate FAFSA for the next academic year, the new format allows you to use last year’s tax data. So, if you’re filling out your FAFSA this fall, you’ll use your 2017 tax return — or your parents’ tax return if you didn’t have to file taxes in 2017.

Since the FAFSA now uses older data, you’ll be able to automatically import the required tax information using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

One caveat: Since you’re now using older tax data to fill out your financial aid form, there’s a chance your family’s financial situation could have changed since you filed your taxes in the spring. If that’s the case, contact your school’s financial aid office to discuss your options. You’ll still need to fill out your FAFSA using the data you already reported.

The deadline for submitting a FAFSA is still June 30 for the previous academic year beginning July 1. If you plan to take a class next summer instead of waiting for the fall semester, be sure to keep this deadline in mind!

How to Fill Out the FAFSA Without Crying

FAFSA deadline
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Eight steps to getting your financial aid squared away might seem like a lot, but I’ve broken down each step so it’s as manageable and non-threatening as possible. Here’s how to apply for FAFSA:

1. Find Your State’s Deadline

When is FAFSA due? While the federal deadline for submitting your FAFSA is June 30, states have their own aid deadlines. For example, Florida’s deadline for FAFSA processing is May 15 — a month and a half earlier than you might have expected.

Check the deadline for your state of residence and note any special rules for award programs.

2. Gather Your Materials

This is not a time to leisurely go through the process of applying for aid. You need to know all the FAFSA requirements and have them at hand before you start. After 10 idle minutes on any page of fafsa.ed.gov, you’ll see a pop-up alert box asking if you’re still online. If you don’t respond quick enough, the site will log you out.

Gather your materials before you log in to avoid that stress. Bits of info you may want to have handy:

  • Your parents’ or spouse’s Social Security numbers
  • A copy of last year’s tax return, in case you can’t import your tax data
  • The amount of income you earned last year, regardless of whether you paid taxes or not
  • Your driver’s license number, if you have one
  • The amount of money you received outside of work or bills paid on your behalf in the previous year. For instance, if your parents don’t claim you as a dependent but they still send you some cash to put toward your rent, you would want to know that yearly amount for your FAFSA. If anyone contributed to a 529 savings plan for you in the previous tax year, be prepared to have that amount available, too.
  • The names of the schools you’ve applied to or plan to apply to. It’s easy to search for these schools within the online system, but you’ll want to have a shortlist ready. You can list up to 10 schools; if you’re applying to more than 10, you’ll have to add the extras after you submit your initial form.

3. Brace Yourself With FAFSA4caster

Use the FAFSA4caster, aka FAFSA Forecaster, tool to get an early estimate of your federal financial aid. The calculator doesn’t reflect your actual aid eligibility — you have to go through the full process for that — but you’ll answer the same types of questions as you will when you sit down to fill out the real deal.

If you or your parents are unfamiliar with the FAFSA, this is an easy way to get your feet wet without being afraid you’re going to mess something up.

4. Do the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet

If this is your first FAFSA rodeo, the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet gives you a preview of the questions you’ll need to answer when you fill out the online form.

I recommend printing it out and doing the practice form in pencil. Then, have it handy when you do your online application, as the “notes” sections may help you navigate any tricky questions.

5. Sign Up for Your FSA ID

If this is your first time filling out a FAFSA, you’ll need to sign up for an FSA ID, which helps you access your financial aid information online and sign electronic documents.

Before 2015, you used your Social Security number and a PIN to sign in; the new method asks you to create a username and password.

If your parents’ information will be included on your FAFSA, they’ll need to sign up for an FSA ID too.

Don’t toss this info aside once you complete the process this year; you’ll log in next year to autofill your previous year’s data and prompt you through the renewal process.

6. Fill It Out!

Log in with your FSA ID and get cracking.

  • Steps 1 through 3 concern the student applicant’s financial situation.
  • Step 4 asks for parents’ financial information. If your parents no longer claim you as a dependent on their taxes, you’ll probably get to skip this part.
  • Step 5 asks about the student’s household, if you’re not a dependent.
  • Step 6 asks for the names of the schools you’re planning to apply to and the associated FAFSA school codes.
  • Step 7 is where you sign! If you’re filling out the online form with your parents, they’ll have to use their FSA ID to sign, too.

7. Learn your Estimated Family Contribution

Once you submit your application, you’ll immediately see your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), or the amount of money the form’s algorithm thinks you can afford to pay for college.

It’s probably some astronomical number that makes you sweat. But don’t panic. That’s probably not the amount you’ll actually have to pay.

Remember that along with Pell Grants, work-study jobs and federal student loans, you may be eligible for merit awards or other scholarships (or even some really unusual scholarships).

I repeat: Do not panic.

8. Review Your Student Aid Report

In a few days, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that summarizes your FAFSA data and confirms you’ve completed your application correctly. You’ll see your EFC listed on your SAR.

When the colleges you’ve applied to send your acceptance notices (fingers crossed!), you’ll also get a financial aid award notice, either in the same package/email or a few days afterward. Your school of choice may have additional questions about your FAFSA responses, but in that case, it will contact you directly.

You’re probably wondering why you should apply for financial aid so early if you won’t get acceptance letters until March or April. It really comes down to peace of mind.

If you’re applying to college for the first time, you have a lot to worry about: where to apply, what you want to study, who you’re going to take to prom in the spring.

The school year will fly by so quickly that it’s worth it to take care of your FAFSA sooner — and avoid stressing over it later.

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer for the Penny Hoarder. She would like to warn you that you need to fill out the FAFSA for graduate school, too.


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