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A Guide to the FAFSA

Unless your parents are paying for school or 1) you have an uber-hefty savings account or 2) you plan to work your way through college, you may need to apply for financial aid to go to college. The first step on the road to financial assistance, including student loans and grants from schools or the federal and local government, is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The FAFSA is the holy grail of student aid. Government and student aid offices depend on it to decide how much assistance you qualify for and what your family can be expected to contribute. Filling out a FAFSA will take a few hours, but consider it a potential portal to the affordable online college .

In order to qualify for financial aid through the FAFSA, you have to meet certain basic requirements. For starters, you have to have a high school diploma or GED (General Educational Development) certificate. If you completed high school in a state-approved home school, don't worry: That's acceptable, too. You also have to be accepted into a qualified college or university (or already enrolled). (If you're enrolling in an online school, make sure it's an accredited online college ). If you are a man, you have to be registered with the Selective Service System.

As part of the FAFSA, you'll have to show that you have not already defaulted on a federal student loan. With few exceptions, you must also provide your Social Security Number and show that you are either a citizen of the United States or a permanent resident with a green card. (Whether or not you are a citizen or have a green card, though, if you are applying for college, fill out the FAFSA anyway because you might qualify for funding from your state.)

Once you've been accepted to a school, submit your FAFSA application as early as possible. For a student attending college from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, students and parents were permitted to submit a FAFSA on Oct. 1, 2016. Colleges don't share a single deadline for receiving aid information; it varies from state to state. However, an early application will never hurt you. Go to FAFSA's deadline section to learn the student aid deadlines for the colleges for which you plan to apply.

You can apply online or mail in your application, both of which are free, and on the computer the form walks you through the process. Once you've completed your application, someone from the U.S. Department of Education will look over your application to see whether you're eligible for federal grants or student loans -- and if so, for how much.

Here's how to fill out a FAFSA that won't have you pulling your hair out:

Collect the necessary paperwork

Before you bring up the FAFSA on your computer, round up some basic information. Among other things, you'll need W-2 forms, copies of federal income tax returns and bank statements. If you're a dependent student, you'll need your parents tax and financial information. Otherwise you can use your own (and your spouse's if you're married).

For the financial and tax information, you'll need to use an earlier tax year than was previously required. (For example, for the 2017-18 academic year, you should use your 2015 tax information.)

Apply for a FSA ID

Go to https://fsaid.ed.gov/npas and apply for a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. This ID will give you entry to the online system. It also serves as your legal signature. If one or more of your parents list you as a dependent on their tax returns, then they, too, need an ID.

Start your application

Locate the URL http://www.fafsa.gov. Click the button that says "Start A New FAFSA," or -- if you've already begun the process and are returning -- click the Login button.

Choose your schools

You can choose 10 different schools. Don't automatically rule out a college because it's out of your price range: Even if a small school seems wildly expensive, it might offer you a much better price on tuition than a large public university. Click the "Search" button to locate each school's Federal School Code. For each school, select the kind of housing you plan to get. Schools use your answers to figure out how much you'll need by way of assistance.

Determine your financial status

Whether you're considered dependent or independent makes a difference in the amount of aid you may get. The Department of Education considers you independent if you don't receive support from your parents and you fit in one of these categories:

  • You're at least 24 years old
  • you're married
  • You're a graduate or professional student
  • You're a veteran or belong to the armed forces

You can find out about other categories for independent students, such as being an orphan, on MoneyGeek's FAFSA guide

Because they don't get support from their parents, independent students may be eligible for more aid. For this reason, the school may ask for documentation when you answer "yes" to anything in this section.

If you're still a dependent, you'll have to provide your parent's financial information. Invite your parents to sit with you and complete the section "Parent Demographics Information" -- it will make everything a lot easier. If they're separated or divorced, complete this part with the one you spent the most time with over the past year.

Don't leave any questions answered, but avoid TMI. Applicants often mistakenly include the value of their family's primary home or parents' retirement plans on the FAFSA. Those shouldn't be considered part of your family's ability to pay for college.

Sign your application

Once you complete the application, you need to sign it with your FSA ID (the one you developed when you started the FAFSA). If you're a dependent and one or more of your parent's information is included, each parent will need to provide his or her FSA ID as well.

Once you submit your application, you should see a confirmation page appear. Print it out for your records. If you used an e-mail address, FAFSA will automatically send you a confirmation via email.

Check your information for accuracy

A summary of your FAFSA application feeds into the Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR will tell you what you or your family is officially expected to contribute (the EFC, or expected family contribution). This helps reviewers determine how much aid you qualify for. That message will will arrive through mail or email (depending on how you submitted it).

Check over the SAR to ensure it's accurate and to look for any questions about errors or missing information. If you're contacted about a problem by someone from the Department of Education, it's up to you to resolve the issue.

The SAR information is then sent to the schools you selected. Their financial aid offices use the form to figure out how much federal aid you could receive. The school's own financial aid program -- if it has one -- will use your FAFSA information to determine how much of that aid you are eligible for as well.

The FAFSA won't be the easiest form you ever have to fill out. But if you need money for college, it could be one of the most important.

References

Applying for Aid. Federal Student Aid. https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa

Estimate Your Aid. Federal Student Aid. https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/estimate

How Aid is Calculated. Federal Student Aid. https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/next-steps/how-calculated

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