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A Student's Guide to Breaking Down the FAFSA

Learn the inner workings of the FAFSA, what it is, and why you need to do it!

Our student contributor, Aleena, makes the FAFSA sound easy -- because it is when you're prepared.
A Student's Guide to Breaking Down the FAFSA
For me, and probably many other students applying to college, figuring out financial aid was the hardest part of college application season. Writing essays, prepping for interviews; all of that was stuff I knew how to do. What I didn’t know how to do, however, was apply for financial aid, which included completing the seemingly complicated FAFSA.

What Is the FAFSA?

First things first: what exactly is this elusive FAFSA? The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA, is the largest provider of student aid in the US. This form assesses your financial need and assigns your aid appropriately.

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The FAFSA application is the universal form used by colleges in determining federal financial aid. According to U.S. News, the U.S. Department of Education grants over $115 billion in federal grants, work-study programs, and loans. So, if you’re looking for any type of federal, state, or college aid, there’s no way around completing the FAFSA. Even if you don’t think you qualify for aid, I always recommend filling it out anyway. The majority of people who complete the FAFSA get some type of aid, regardless of their financial status. Additionally, some colleges use the FAFSA for merit scholarships as well, so there’s no harm in completing it!

When is the FAFSA Due?

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For any upcoming school year, the form will open October 1st and the FAFSA deadline is around June 30th of the following year. However, I strongly recommend completing it as soon as possible because colleges typically have earlier deadlines. When I was applying to colleges, most of my financial aid deadlines were usually in November for the early application round and February-March for the regular decision round.

What Do You Need to Fill Out the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is a lengthy and detailed form, but you don’t have to do it all in one sitting. The form can be saved and returned to at a later date.

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If you’re a dependent student, you’ll be using not only your financial information but also your parent or guardians’. A dependent student is defined as being younger than 24 years of age by the end of the year you’re applying for, a student in an associate or bachelor’s program, or unmarried with no dependents of your own. Independent students will use their information and their spouse’s if they have one. Here are some of the forms/information you’ll need to fill it out: • Social security number • Tax information for the tax cycle two years prior to the academic year • W-2 forms and other records of income • Records of untaxed income • Savings and checking balances • The value of any assets

Breaking Down the FAFSA Form: Things I Wish I knew

So now that you have an idea of what the FAFSA is and the basics of approaching it, we can break down the application into easier steps. The first step is to create a Federal Student Aid ID, or FSA ID. The FSA ID is your login to the FAFSA form. Some interesting things to note about the FSA ID is that both you and your parent will need to make separate ones if you’re a dependent. Once created, you won’t automatically be able to log into the FAFSA: your information will need to first be verified by the Social Security Administration, which will take about 3 days. When it’s ready, you’ll get an email inviting you to start the FAFSA. Once you start the FAFSA, the first few questions are relatively straightforward. As you progress, the form starts to dive deeper into your financials and taxes. At any point, you can save and exit the form—you’ll be prompted to create a “save key” so you can log in and out of the form. Don’t feel as if you must complete it all in one sitting! Probably the biggest shock I received regarding the FAFSA is that it must be completed for every year you’re looking for aid. It’s a common misunderstanding that only high school seniors fill out the FAFSA when they’re applying to college, but even current college students must complete it if they’re looking for aid. For example, most students will fill it out four times, one for each year they are in their undergraduate education. The good news is, however, that the FAFSA is much quicker if you’re doing it for the second, third, or fourth time.

Sending the FAFSA

When you’re done with the financial aspect of the FAFSA, you’ll have the opportunity to send it to ten colleges. If you’re applying to more than 10 colleges (like I did!), don’t freak out. There is a way to send it to more than 10. To send the FAFSA to all your schools, you’ll have to send to ten colleges initially and then you can go back in and select more colleges later. For example, I would recommend selecting your top schools and the schools with the earliest financial aid deadlines as the initial 10. Once these schools have received the FAFSA, you can go back and remove these 10 and replace them with the rest of your schools. A little tip: you can usually see if your college has received your FAFSA and other financial aid information through your student application portal. In addition to your application materials, there’s often a section for financial aid materials. Monitor these portals to ensure your initial 10 schools received the FAFSA and, once they have, you can go in and add your other schools.

Changes in Financial Status

Unfortunately, the FAFSA does not offer the ability to update your finances in the case of a major change to your family’s financial situation. However, if there is a significant update that affects your ability to pay for college, then please reach out to the college’s financial aid office. In my experience, most financial aid offices are very understanding and willing to help you! Hopefully, this guide has helped you understand the inner workings of this seemingly complex form. While it does go into much detail, the FAFSA is simpler than it appears.

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