One of the most important things undergraduate and graduate students can do to get college funding they need is to accurately fill out the FAFSA® —the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
By filling out this one form each school year, students learn what federal aid they qualify for, including student loans, grants, and work-study programs.
How to Fill Out the FAFSA: Getting Started
Create a Username and Password
1. The combo is known as the FSA ID . If you are an independent student, you are the only one who needs to obtain an FSA ID. An independent student is one who, in general, meets any of these criteria:
• Will be 24 or older by Jan. 1 of the school year for which the student is applying for financial aid
• Is married
• Is working toward a master’s degree or doctorate
• Has children who receive more than half of their support from the FAFSA applicant
• Is a member of the armed forces or is a veteran
• Has undergone the legal process to become independent
The full list of qualifications is here dependency.
For dependent students, a parent or guardian will also need to obtain a FSA ID.
The ID will be used to confirm your identity and to electronically sign federal student loan documents. Make sure you keep track of your FSA ID, and, if you and your parents each need to get these IDs, don’t get them mixed up.
2. After entering your FSA ID, you can now fill out the FAFSA at fafsa.ed.gov. It’s a good idea to be as proactive as possible when completing the application because some schools and states run out of financial aid dollars early.
The form is available on Oct. 1 for the next school year. For example, the form becomes available on Oct. 1, 2021, for the 2022-23 school year. The Oct. 1 launch date coincides with many college application deadlines, so you could submit admission and federal aid applications at the same time. (List any school you’re considering, even if you’re not sure you’ll apply. You can add or remove colleges from your FAFSA form later.)
Note: Instructions given for the rest of this post are for students because any time the application says “you” or “your,” it’s referring to the student.
Enter Student Demographic Information
What’s most important here is that you accurately fill in the information, carefully proofreading for typos. You’ll be asked for basic information, such as your name (entered exactly as it appears on your Social Security card) and your address, date of birth, and so forth.
You can list every school that you’d like to consider attending, even if you haven’t applied yet. Colleges can’t access this list.
Weigh Dependency Status
If you’re a dependent student, you need parental participation. Who counts as your parent? Here are guidelines.
Fill Out Parental Demographics
If you’re a dependent student, this is where your parent or parents will need to share their demographic information.
Provide Financial Information
The IRS Data Retrieval Tool automatically transfers tax information to the FAFSA form. There are manual entry options as well.
Electronically Sign and Submit Your FAFSA
You and your parent(s) sign the FAFSA using your FSA IDs. If you have two parents, the parent who is signing must identify as Parent 1 or Parent 2 (a designation made when filling out parental demographics; you can always go back to that section to see which choice is appropriate).
Another (slower) option: You can print out the signature page, sign it, and mail it.
Who Should Bother With the FAFSA?
Anyone who could benefit from even a little college financial aid has nothing to lose by filling out the FAFSA. Many students leave money on the table every year by failing to complete it, and low-income families are often less likely to complete the form than wealthier ones.
Even if you are not eligible for federal aid, it’s worth your while to complete the FAFSA because most schools and states use FAFSA information to award nonfederal aid.
To qualify for federal grants, work-study, and different types of student loans, you must be a US citizen or an eligible noncitizen. You’ll need a valid Social Security number, with few exceptions.
You’ll need a high school diploma or recognized equivalent. You’ll also need to enroll in an eligible educational program and maintain satisfactory academic progress.
Men will need to have registered for the Selective Service.
Here are a few of the items that can make you ineligible for federal aid. If you:
• Owe money on a previous federal student grant
• Are in default on a previous federal student loan
• Had a drug-related conviction while receiving federal student aid. If you answer “yes,” you are asked to fill out a worksheet to determine whether your conviction affects your eligibility for new federal student aid.
Related: Do You Have to Pay FAFSA Back?
Some types of federal aid is available only to people who demonstrate certain financial need. This includes the Federal Pell Grant and Direct Subsidized Loans. For the latter, the government pays the accrued interest while the borrower is in college or during most of their deferment periods.
What If I Don’t Qualify for Any or Enough Aid?
Merit aid, based on academic excellence, talent, and/or certain achievements, is available. Some colleges won’t consider you for any of their merit scholarships until you’ve submitted the FAFSA, according to the Department of Education.
Businesses, nonprofits, cultural organizations, and local groups also offer merit scholarships.
You can also look into state grants and scholarships. Every state has its own money and process for distributing aid. Some only require a completed FAFSA; others, a separate application.
Then there are private student loans, those not issued by the government. You can check to see what various lenders offer.
If you investigate private student loan possibilities, note that each lender has its own conditions. Some, for example, won’t allow you to defer payments if you get into a financially challenging situation after graduation.
Although private student loans don’t come with the benefits and protections that federal student loans have—like income-driven repayment plans and federal forbearance—they may help bridge funding gaps.
Taking a little time to fill out the FAFSA could yield student aid in the form of federal grants, loans, and work-study. Blow it off and you could leave money on the table.
If you think a private student loan could fill in gaps in the road to a college degree, check out what SoFi offers.
There are no fees. Apply with a co-signer if you’d like, and enjoy flexible repayment options.
This article originally appeared on SoFi.