Our Step-by-Step Guide to Filling Out FAFSA Makes it Mostly Painless

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

And that financial aid is important: The average cost of college per student, per year is $36,436, according to the Education Data Initiative. And the Associated Press reports that some elite schools will cost as much as $95,000 this coming school year.

Some good news in an increasingly expensive educational landscape: Recent major changes to the FAFSA have simplified the process of applying for aid. That means it’s easier than ever to get the financial assistance students need.

The FAFSA form for the 2024-25 school year became available in late December 2023, three months later than it typically becomes available, due to a number of sweeping changes to the process. The exact deadlines vary by state, but it’s best to turn the form in as quickly as possible. Early applicants have better chances for more federal financial aid.

But don’t fret: It’s still not too late to submit your FAFSA even for the 2023-24 school year; the final deadline for that is June 30, 2024.

The new form is now much easier to fill out. In recent years, applicants have been able to use older tax information instead of making estimations and corrections. And for the 2024-25 school year, the FAFSA has shrunk to just 36 questions instead of 108. But even with the modifications, filling out a financial aid application isn’t anyone’s idea of a fun evening at home.

That’s why we’re here. Behold: Your ultimate guide to filling out the FAFSA form. We’ll cover what exactly the FAFSA is, why everyone seeking higher education should fill it out, how to complete the (dreaded) application itself and tips to get through the paperwork quickly.

What Is the FAFSA and Why Should I Fill it Out?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form administered by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Federal Student Aid. Current and prospective college students can submit the FAFSA form to determine what federal aid — in the form of grants, scholarships, federal loans or work-study jobs — is available to them each academic year.

Colleges and universities frequently use data from the FAFSA to determine eligibility for their own scholarships and student assistance programs, too. What that effectively means is that the FAFSA isn’t only for need-based or federal aid, so you should complete the FAFSA annually — even if you think your parents make too much money.

New FAFSA Rules: FAFSA Simplification Act

Due to new legislation known as the FAFSA Simplification Act, which passed in December 2020, some FAFSA rules are changing. The law aims to drastically simplify the student aid FAFSA form, cutting it from more than 100 questions to 36 — starting with the 2024-25 school year.

In addition to the simplified form, there are other significant changes to the FAFSA. For instance, previous drug convictions are no longer a barrier to receiving federal student aid, and male applicants no longer need to register for the Selective Service System (SSS), aka the draft or military conscription, to be considered.

Other big FAFSA changes now confirmed for the 2024-25 school year include:

  • Student aid index: The longstanding “Expected Family Contribution” term has been changed to “Student Aid Index. Why? Expected Family Contribution (EFC) seemingly implied that’s what families could be expected to, well, contribute. But that wasn’t the case. EFC was merely an indicator of aid eligibility. Changing it to Student Aid Index should theoretically cause less concern for parents and students when they see their final number.
  • Expanded Pell Grant eligibility: As of July 1, 2023, incarcerated students enrolled in a prison education program are now eligible for a Pell Grant. Pell Grants don’t need to be repaid (they’re grants, or gifts, not loans). How Pell Grant size is calculated is also changing for 2024-25. Students will now be able to look up whether they’re eligible for a minimum or maximum grant much more easily. The maximum Pell Grant award for 2024-25 did not change from the previous school year; it’s still $7,395.
  • Elimination of advantage for multiple children: Previously, families with multiple children in college at the same time benefited from additional aid. Starting with this round of FAFSA, the number of children a family simultaneously has in college will no longer impact an individual student’s aid calculation.
  • Divorced parents: Previously, either divorced parent could fill out the parent portion of a FAFSA. Now, it has to be the custodial parent — that is, the one with whom the child primarily lives.
  • Farms and small businesses: Another major change will impact students whose families own a small business or farm. The net worth of those entities must now be reported, which could drastically reduce the amount of aid such a student receives.

Key FAFSA Deadlines and Dates

Tracking FAFSA deadlines can be difficult because the application window for a single school year lasts nearly two years. That means, at a given time, there could be two school years for which you can apply for aid:

  • The FAFSA form for the 2023-24 school year became available Oct. 1, 2022, and is due June 30, 2024.
  • The FAFSA form for the 2024-25 school year became available Dec. 31, 2023 (it was late to allow for the comprehensive overhauls being put in place) and is due June 30, 2025.

To submit an accurate FAFSA for the next academic year before tax season, the format now allows you to use the previous year’s tax data. Students have been able to fill out the 2023-24 FAFSA using their 2021 tax return — or their parents’ tax return if they were a dependent student and/or didn’t have to file taxes in 2021.

However, now that the 2022 tax season is behind us, applicants who are just starting their FAFSA should use their most recent tax returns. For the 2024-25 school year, you will be able to use your 2022 tax return for a speedier submission.

When using older tax data for your FAFSA, you can automatically import the required tax information using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Thanks to the new FAFSA simplification law, you won’t need to use this tool in subsequent years because the agency will automatically pull your tax data for you.

One caveat or limitation to using the IRS Data Retrieval tool. Since you’re 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. If that’s the case, contact your school’s financial aid office to discuss options. You’ll still need to fill out your FAFSA form using the data you already reported.

The deadline for submitting a FAFSA is still June 30 for the previous academic year beginning July 1. For example, though the application for the 2023-24 school year became available on Oct. 1, 2022, you have until June 30, 2024, to submit for aid that year. You’ll have even longer — until June 30, 2025 — to complete your 2024-25 FAFSA.

However, funds are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis — and state and college deadlines are typically much earlier, often the spring before the school year begins (i.e., more than a year before the federal deadline) — so it’s in your best interest to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible.

* State deadlines for FAFSA

A Note on Student Loan Forgiveness

Student loan forgiveness continues to be a hot topic in politics. Although President Biden announced major student loan forgiveness legislation in 2022, the Supreme Court officially struck that down a year later. For now, it remains unclear if and when student loan forgiveness may impact graduates and how it could affect future college students who are preparing to take out their first student loans. Never bank on student loan forgiveness when taking out a new loan, as it can’t be guaranteed.

In light of the Supreme Court ruling, the White House has issued new actions aimed at providing debt relief and support for student loan borrowers. You can learn more about President Biden’s current plans here.

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Preparing to Fill Out the FAFSA Form

Getting your financial aid squared away might seem like a lot, but we’ve broken down each step so it’s as manageable and non-threatening as possible. Here’s what you should familiarize yourself with before filling out the FAFSA form.

1. Find Your State’s Deadline

When is the FAFSA due? While the federal deadline for submitting your 2024-25 FAFSA is June 30, 2025, states have their own aid deadlines. Given that the FAFSA became available significantly later for the 2024-25 academic year, states may be more lenient, but you should always review your state’s guidelines.

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

2. Gather Your Documents and 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 paperwork ready before you start. For example, let’s say you wait until actually applying to gather your documents. If you idle too long on the FAFSA webpage while trying to hunt down your parent’s Social Security number, you may get booted out for inactivity and have to reload and start again.

Gather your materials before you log in to avoid that stress. Bits of financial information you should have handy include:

  • Social Security numbers for you, your parents or your spouse. (Note: If you’re a dependent student and your parents do not have Social Security numbers, they can’t fill out their portion online. They will need to use physical forms.)
  • If you’re not a U.S. citizen, then use your Alien Registration Number.
  • A copy of last year’s tax return, in case you can’t import your tax data using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.
  • 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 of names 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.
  • Your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID and password if you’re a returning FAFSA applicant. Otherwise, we’ll cover below how to create an FSA ID for first timers.

Note: If filling out the 2024-25 FAFSA, you may not need all of this information. Some will be available through the direct data exchange with the IRS.

3. Brace Yourself With the Federal Student Aid Estimator Tool

Use the Federal Student Aid Estimator 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’ll mess something up. The process takes about 10 minutes to complete, and you’ll need your basic tax and income information to get the best estimation.

4. First Timers, 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.

We 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.

Completing — or at least previewing — this form can help you determine exactly what tax documentation you’ll be expected to provide for yourself, your spouse or your parents.

Note: This only applies to 2023-24 applications. This is not applicable for 2024-25 applications, since the process has been simplified.

5. Sign Up for Your FSA ID

If this is your first time filling out a FAFSA form, you’ll need to sign up for a Federal Student Aid ID, which helps you access and submit your financial aid information online.

Back in the day, circa 2015, you used your Social Security number and a PIN to sign in. Now you create a username and password. An FSA ID allows you to log into the federal student aid website, apply for aid, save your progress and sign your FAFSA form electronically.

To create an FSA ID, you’ll need your Social Security number, a mobile phone and an email address.

If your parents’ financial information will be included on your FAFSA, they’ll need to individually sign up for an FSA ID too. The Social Security Administration verifies the information provided for FSA IDs. If your parents do not have an SSN, they can’t create an FSA ID or electronically sign documents. Instead, they’ll need to print out the relevant sections of the FAFSA document and physically sign them. In the portions of the form that request an SSN, they should use the number 000-00-0000.

Don’t toss your FSA ID login 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. Set Expectations About Your Student Aid Index

Starting with the 2024-25 school year, parents and students no longer have to worry about the Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). Instead, you’ll see a number called the Student Aid Index (SAI). While there are some small changes to the formula, Student Aid Index is essentially a rebrand of the EFC.

The Expected Family Contribution was always a misnomer: Parents saw the number and assumed their families were expected to contribute an amount that was potentially much higher than they could afford. While the formula for the Student Aid Index hasn’t changed much, parents might feel less pressure when they see the number.

Aside from the rebrand, the biggest change from EFC to SAI is the range. The lowest EFC a family could get was $0, but families can now earn an SAI as low as -$1,500, which accounts for college expenses that are not traditionally published in a school’s cost of attendance.Also noteworthy? The old formula used to give breaks to families with multiple kids in college. The updated SAI does not provide such relief.

When you see the EFC or SAI number, remember that along with Pell Grants, work-study jobs and federal student loans, you may be eligible for merit awards or other scholarships to help you pay the remaining portion.

Whether you’re looking at an EFC or SAI, is not a definitive number of what you will owe. We repeat: Do not panic.

How to Fill Out the FAFSA Form, Step by Step

If you’ve completed the preparation steps above, the FAFSA form itself will be manageable. Still, it’s good to know what to expect. Here, we’ll break down the infamous FAFSA application form itself — and, hopefully, you’ll find that it’s not so intimidating after all.

The FAFSA Web Worksheet and last year’s FAFSA application will drastically help you set expectations for the 2023-24 FAFSA. If you’re filling out the FAFSA for 2024-25, let out a great big sigh of relief. The new form only has 36 questions.

The 2023-24 FAFSA application, on the other hand, is about 10 pages long and contains more than 100 questions. But once you have it in front of you, you’ll notice that several pages are dedicated to instructions and definitions. Only about six pages contain questions. Even better, you won’t need to answer every single question. There are separate sections for parental information that won’t be required for everyone.

Overview of FAFSA Steps for 2023-24 School Year

Here is a basic overview of the seven application steps. We’ll dive even deeper into how the subsections break down below.

  • Steps 1-3 concern the student applicant’s financial situation.
  • Step 4 asks for parents’ financial information. (Independent students 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.

The form is color-coded, and the seven steps are divided in two main categories: student (you) info and parental information. Here’s a closer look.

Student (That’s You) Information Questions (2023-24 School Year)

Questions related to you and the schools you want to attend are non-linear and scattered throughout the FAFSA form. That’s because, depending on how you answer the first batch of questions, you may be able to skip over several other questions and sections.

Here’s what you, as a student, may be required to answer.

Steps 1-3 of the FAFSA ask about your financial situation, basic demographics and marital status. Based on your answers here, you’ll determine if additional information is needed from a spouse (if you’re legally married) or your parents (if you’re younger than 24 and financially dependent on them).

If you are considered a dependent student, you’ll need to provide demographic and tax details on your parents, next. If you’re an independent student, you can proceed to step 5 to input your own tax and income info.

Step 6 is also for students. In this section, you’ll list the top colleges that you want to attend and receive financial aid for. You can use the college’s institution code, which is indexed in an easily searchable database. In lieu of a code, you can list the college’s full name and address.

The final step, step 7, is where you sign and date the form, attesting that the information you provided is true.

Key documents you’ll need to answer questions for the student section include:

  • Social Security or Alien Registration number
  • Tax forms and income documentation including non-taxable income (if independent); and tax information for your spouse (if legally married)
  • A list of schools that you wish to attend and receive aid for (plus their institutional codes or full names and addresses)

If you’ve compiled these documents beforehand, you can probably blast through the student questions in 15 minutes or fewer.

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Parental Questions (2023-24 School Year)

Depending on how you answered the student questions in step 3, you may be considered a dependent student, i.e., you rely on your parents for some form of support.

If you answered no to any questions in step 3, you and your parent(s) will need to complete step 4. This step requests parental information related to taxes, income, demographics and more.

Given the nature of these questions, it’s best you fill these out together (even though the FAFSA form poses them to you — e.g. “What is your parents’ state of legal residence?”)

At the end, step 7 will require them to separately sign anyway — either electronically through their own separate FSA account or physically if they don’t have a Social Security number. So it’s best to have them nearby.

Key documents you’ll need to answer questions for the parental section include:

  • Parents’ Social Security numbers (if applicable; otherwise use 000-00-0000)
  • Tax returns and income documentation for both parents
  • Untaxed income documentation for applicable retirement plans, government benefits programs, child support, etc.

Overview of FAFSA Steps for 2024-25 School Year

Because the new FAFSA is dramatically simplified, the steps to fill it out are much less involved, though you and your parents will still have to enter in some information. Here’s a simple breakdown of the steps:

  1. Log in to your account or, if it’s your first time, select “Start New Form” on the FAFSA website.
  2. List the colleges and/or careers schools you are applying to (up to 20 schools).
  3. Answer questions to determine dependency status.
  4. Report your parents’ and/or spouse’s information, as required.
  5. Provide financial information with the Financial Aid Direct Data Exchange through the IRS. (You’ll have to provide consent.)
  6. Sign and submit.

After You Submit Your FAFSA Form

Congratulations! You did it.

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. For the 2023-24 school year, you’ll see your EFC listed on your SAR. Again, don’t panic at this number. It’s an estimation. For 2024-25, you’ll see the SAI.

You’ll also be able to review your Student Aid Report for any mistakes and correct them online through your FSA account.

When the colleges you’ve applied to send your acceptance notices (fingers crossed!), you’ll also get a financial aid award letter, 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, the financial aid office will contact you directly.

Some schools may ask you to independently verify some of the information you provided on your FAFSA, so it’s a good idea to keep the documents you used to answer the FAFSA questions handy.

Fill Out the FAFSA Fast With These Tips

Here’s how to cut down on the time it takes to fill out the FAFSA.

  1. Get your documents ready. To complete the FAFSA, you will need to reference tax forms, income documentation, addresses, emails, your driver’s license number and Social Security numbers (yours, your spouse’s and/or your parents’); remind your parents to compile all their paperwork on untaxed income and other important financial information. Gathering these documents will be the most time-consuming part. You don’t need to wait until the FAFSA form is released to do so. If you have them in order early, you can easily have your FAFSA completed Oct. 1, the day it’s released.
  2. Decide on your schools early. The FAFSA requires you to list at least one school that you want to attend and request financial aid for. Given that, it’s important you have in mind your top schools before you sit down to complete the FAFSA. To speed up this process even further, you can collect the schools’ institutional codes beforehand as well, so that you don’t have to input the addresses of several colleges.
  3. Get your family to create their FSA IDs before filling out the FAFSA. Assuming you and your parents meet the requirements (in short, you all have Social Security numbers), creating separate FSA IDs for everyone involved as soon as you can is one of the most time-saving actions you can take. Having an FSA ID allows you to fully complete the FAFSA form online and electronically sign it. Once it’s signed and sent, the Federal Student Aid office can begin reviewing it immediately. Otherwise, you will have to physically sign the FAFSA form and snail mail it to the Department of Education, which could take days or even weeks to process.
  4. Plan a date and time to complete the FAFSA that works for you and your family. It’s likely either your parents or your spouse will be involved in the FAFSA form process. To ensure everything is submitted in a correct and timely fashion, it’s best if you can wrangle everyone in the same room (or video call!). That way, you can all work on the relevant sections at the same time and tackle any questions as they come up. (Pizza is optional but highly encouraged.)

If you’re properly prepared and take these steps, you should be able to knock out the entire FAFSA process in as little as an hour.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About the FAFSA

Here are the answers to your frequently asked questions about the FAFSA.

Who Should Apply for the FAFSA?

Any current and prospective college students should complete the FAFSA, even if they don’t think they’ll qualify. Many colleges use the information from the FAFSA to determine eligibility for merit-based scholarships and other financial aid. Currently enrolled college students should fill out the FAFSA each year to account for any changes in income, dependency or marital status. After you complete the FAFSA form the first time, it becomes much easier to do so subsequently.

What Are the FAFSA Deadlines?

The FAFSA became available on Oct. 1, 2022, for the 2023-24 academic school year. The federal deadline to submit the FAFSA for that academic year is June 30, 2024. However, many states set their own deadlines, which could be much sooner. And federal aid is earmarked on a first-come-first-served basis. So applying earlier is always better.

The FAFSA form for the 2024-25 school year became available on Dec. 31 2023, with a federal deadline of June 30, 2025. This form reflects additional changes from the FAFSA Simplification Act.

How Long Does It Take to Fill Out the FAFSA?

If you are well prepared with the information requested on the FAFSA form, it can take as little as one hour to complete and submit. There are several key things you can do before you sit down to fill out the form itself. These steps — like gathering your demographic, tax and income documentation early — will drastically cut down on the time it takes to complete the FAFSA.

What Did the FAFSA Simplification Act Change?

The FAFSA Simplification Act changed a lot; its key goal was to make the FAFSA quicker and easier to submit. The new law, which passed in December 2020, ultimately cut the FAFSA form down to 36 questions, expanded eligibility for need-based grants and reduce the burden for supplying tax documentation from the IRS.

Former Penny Hoarder staff writers Adam Hardy and Lisa Rowan contributed to this report as did current freelance writer Timothy Moore.