Completing the FAFSA: Everything You Should Know

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is one of the most important steps students and their families can take to pay for college. In recent years, some states have even made completing the FAFSA a high school graduation requirement.

The U.S. Department of Education awards around $115.6 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funds, according to the most recent Federal Student Aid annual report. The agency reports that federal funds assist roughly 10.8 million students in completing their education.

Federal financial aid can be awarded, such as with a grant; borrowed; or earned through work experience. Here are a few answers to common questions about the FAFSA.

What Is the FAFSA?

“The FAFSA is the application that is required to be used by all schools in awarding federal student aid,” says Brad Barnett, director of financial aid and scholarships at James Madison University in Virginia. “So if you want federal loans, federal grants, federal work-study, you have to do the FAFSA.”

Nearly all students who apply qualify for some form of federal financial aid. “It’s very easy to qualify for aid based on the FAFSA,” Barnett says.

[Read: How to Pay for College Using These Overlooked Strategies.]

But filling out the FAFSA can be a confusing, complex process for most families. The paper version of the FAFSA has more than 100 questions — that’s nearly three times as long as the standard federal income tax form.

The online FAFSA, however, uses skip-logic technology to present applicants with relevant questions. The amount of time it will take to complete the FAFSA can vary. Completion time is typically longer for dependent students, because they must provide both their own information and their parents’ information. It also typically takes longer to complete the FAFSA the first time, compared with subsequent submissions as students progress through college.

According to a Department of Education spokesperson, for the 2021-2022 FAFSA, it takes dependent students 63 minutes on average to complete a new form and 41 minutes to complete a renewal; the average completion time among independent students is 24 minutes for a new form and 19 minutes for a renewal form.

How to Apply for Financial Aid Via the FAFSA

Students can fill out the online FAFSA application using a computer or mobile phone. Alternatively, the paper version, known as the PDF FAFSA, can be printed and filled out manually or filled in on the screen prior to printing and mailing.

The mobile version of the FAFSA launched in 2018 and will continue to be available when the 2022-2023 FAFSA opens on Oct. 1. The Department of Education’s phone-friendly version aims to increase FAFSA completion rates. According to 2021 survey data from the Pew Research Center, 97% of Americans own a cellphone of some kind.

To complete the form via mobile phone or a tablet, families will need to download the myStudentAid app from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

According to the Education Department, students and parents can start filling out the FAFSA on one device, like a cellphone, and complete the form on another, like a desktop computer. Parents and students don’t have to complete the FAFSA at the same time.

Gather Your FAFSA Documents

There’s a list of paperwork needed to complete the FAFSA. Students will need their Social Security number, driver’s license number or state ID, alien registration number for non-U.S. citizens, tax information, records of untaxed income, current bank statements and investments — if any — along with the list of schools they are interested in attending.

Parents will need their tax information, records of untaxed income, net worth and investment information, and current bank statements.

Create an FSA ID

The first step, before filling out the FAFSA, is to create an FSA ID, which serves as an electronic signature. Parents and students can find a link to obtain an FSA ID through the Federal Student Aid website. To create a unique ID, applicants will need their Social Security number, date of birth and their name as it appears on official documents.

The FSA ID is required in order to sign the FAFSA online and to log in to the myStudentAid mobile app. While a student or parent can immediately use the FSA ID to sign a first-time FAFSA application, other activities, like a FAFSA renewal, cannot be completed until the Social Security Administration validates the information submitted to create the ID, which takes an average of one to three days.

Parents and students will need to generate their own specific IDs, since applicants aren’t allowed to create one on someone else’s behalf. A parent who does not have a Social Security number cannot create an FSA ID. On the online FAFSA form, a student can enter all zeros where it asks for the parent’s Social Security number, and then select the option to print a signature page at the end of the application.

For students under age 24 who are seeking a certificate or associate or bachelor’s degree, both a student and parent FSA ID are required unless the student is considered independent on the FAFSA.

To be considered independent on the form, the student must be married or separated, but not divorced; a veteran or current member of the armed forces; an orphan; an emancipated minor or in a court-ordered legal guardianship; a homeless youth or one at risk of being homeless; a parent who provides more than half of the financial support for a child or dependent; or have received foster care or been a ward of the court for any period after age 13.

Graduate and professional students are considered independent on the FAFSA.

Enter Student and Parent Information

To apply for financial aid via the FAFSA, students will need to input information on their citizenship and marital status, legal residence, Social Security number and the number of people within their household. Parents will need to submit the same information.

Applicants must also list at least one school they plan to apply to or already applied to, so the school can receive their information. On the online form, students can select up to 10 institutions, while the PDF version accommodates up to four.

In an effort to streamline the application process and increase access to federal aid, small changes were made for the 2021-2022 award year as part of the phased implementation of the FAFSA Simplification Act, which was passed by Congress on Dec. 27, 2020. These include the removal of the requirement that male students register with the Selective Service System to receive federal aid, and the elimination of consequences associated with answering “yes” to a question about drug-related convictions. While these questions remain on the FAFSA, colleges no longer take them into account.

Enter Your Financial Information

The FAFSA uses tax information from what’s known as the “prior prior year” — verified tax returns from two years ago. A family completing the FAFSA for the 2022-2023 academic year, for instance, will use the 2020 tax return. The use of verified tax returns from the prior prior year reduces the need to use estimates on the form.

While filling out the form, students and parents will be required to disclose income and child support payments as well as indicate whether they received federal program benefits like Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and free or reduced price school lunch.

Review and Submit Your FAFSA

To fully complete the FAFSA, students and parents, if applicants are filing as dependents, are required to sign the form — either digitally using their FSA ID or by hand on the paper version.

After submission, the applicant will receive a Student Aid Report, or SAR. The report includes the applicant’s responses to the form’s questions as well as the expected family contribution, or EFC, if the application is complete. This number is used to determine a student’s eligibility for financial aid. The Department of Education sends the report via email or postal mail, depending on whether the applicant provided a valid email address.

The SAR is a summary of the FAFSA data submitted, so applicants should review it carefully for any mistakes, according to Pam Andrews, founder of The Scholarship Shark, a Delaware-based college coaching company that helps students and parents maximize awards. “Once you submit it, you can always make changes. You have to wait a day or two, but a family can go back in and update their FAFSA.”

Some FAFSA forms are selected by the Department of Education for verification. Typically, more than 3 million individuals from low-income backgrounds who are eligible for the federal Pell Grant and who submit the form are asked to provide proof of their information through the verification process. But the department has temporarily changed this process for the 2021-2022 award year to focus verification specifically on identity theft and fraud.

[READ: FAFSA Verification: What to Do if You’re Selected]

After the online FAFSA is processed by the Department of Education within three to five days, the information will be sent to the list of schools each student provided, and the colleges will use that to determine financial aid eligibility.

Who Is Eligible to Receive Federal Student Aid?

U.S. citizens, nationals, legal permanent residents and individuals who have an Arrival-Departure Record from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services showing certain designations, including refugees, are eligible to apply for federal student aid. Students need to be enrolled in a Title IV-eligible program, meaning one that can receive federal financial aid funds, to qualify.

The FAFSA asks for information about income, assets and demographic factors, such as household size and number of children enrolled in college at the same time. This information is used to calculate the expected family contribution, which determines eligibility for federal student aid. For instance, if the EFC is zero, then the student will most likely qualify for the maximum Pell Grant — a federal award based on financial need.

[Read: What EFC Is and How it Relates to Paying for College.]

Families that earn $27,000 or less annually are calculated as an automatic zero for the EFC in the 2022-2023 award year.

But even families with higher incomes qualify for some type of aid. “There is no explicit income cutoff. And different types of aid have different awarding criteria,” says Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and author of “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.” Students who aren’t eligible for a federal grant, for instance, may still qualify for work-study or federal loans, which typically carry lower interest rates compared with private education loans.

According to Sallie Mae’s 2021 survey, How America Pays for College, 68% of families submitted the 2020-2021 FAFSA application. In many cases, the families who did not apply believed they would not qualify for federal financial aid. Others missed the deadline or felt the application was too complicated.

“Nearly a third of families are potentially leaving thousands of dollars of aid on the table and essentially paying more for college than they need to,” says Ashley Boucher, a Sallie Mae spokesperson. “This is definitely an issue.”

What Do I Need to Know About the IRS Data Retrieval Tool?

Students and their families can save time with the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, called DRT, which automatically transfers tax information to the online application. This feature is also available on the mobile app.

To use the tool, income tax returns from the prior prior year need to have been filed electronically at least three weeks prior to completing the FAFSA. If the tax returns were filed via mail, then applicants need to allow at least 11 weeks before using the tool.

Under the financial information section of the FAFSA, an applicant can click “Link to IRS” to prefill the form with the prior prior tax year details. When using the tool, the applicant will be transferred to the IRS website. After the information transfers, the site will direct the user back to the FAFSA application.

“Whatever you submit to the federal government for tax returns is going to prepopulate on the form,” Andrews says.

What Is the Deadline for the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is available on Oct. 1. That’s the first day an applicant can complete the form for the upcoming academic year. While deadlines vary for each school, the federal due date is June 30. But schools often establish priority filing dates, which can be as early as Dec. 1. The 2022-2023 FAFSA, for example, opens Oct. 1, 2021, and closes June 30, 2023.

“If you miss a priority filing date, you may miss out on grant money,” Barnett says, especially when it comes to institutional aid since many schools award their need-based grants based on information submitted on the FAFSA. “If you’re interested in four or five schools, then it’s advisable to find out the priority filing date for each one of those schools, and then get the FAFSA in by each one of those filing dates.”

[Read: File FAFSA Early to Minimize Borrowing.]

Andrews says there are three deadlines to observe. “I find the school deadlines are typically the earliest deadline. Then there’s maybe state deadlines that drive state grants and some state scholarships, so you need to know that deadline. And then there’s the hard-fast deadline, the June 30th deadline when the FAFSA closes.”

Deadlines for state aid vary, but there are a few that distribute awards on a first-come, first-served basis. Kantrowitz says 15 states have adopted this policy, including Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont and Washington.

“If your child is in one of those states, it really pays to file the FAFSA sooner,” says Kantrowitz, who advises filing the FAFSA close to the Oct. 1 release date. Eleven other states such as Connecticut, Texas and Rhode Island have deadlines between December and March, he says.

How Has the Coronavirus Pandemic Affected the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is still available amid the coronavirus pandemic. A 2020 Discover Student Loans survey found that nearly 40% of parents who didn’t plan to apply for federal aid said they will as a result of COVID-19. Manny Chagas, vice president of Discover Student Loans, says the increased demand in aid will make it more important that families complete the FAFSA early.

“One of the important things about how the FAFSA works and aid works at a lot of universities is that it is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis,” he says. “So the fact that we expect, based on these survey results, that more people will be applying for federal aid and aid more broadly this year, the importance of applying early this year is amplified.”

Students and families who have recently experienced a change in financial situation not reflected in the information they provided on the FAFSA, possibly due to job loss or medical bills, can consider filing an appeal. Experts also urge students to reach out and ask colleges to make adjustments.

“The Department of Education has issued some guidance that says schools can use professional judgment to adjust the family’s income if they experienced a job loss because of the pandemic, or for any reason, really,” says Kathy Ruby, principal of financial aid optimization at EAB, a higher education consulting firm. “Colleges are standing ready to make adjustments when a family needs it, and that’s pretty important during these times because there is a delayed effect of the pandemic.”

Who Do I Contact if I Need Help With the FAFSA?

Students and families with questions about the FAFSA can contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center, known as the FSAIC, which provides support on behalf of the Department of Education. The FSAIC is available at 800-433-3243, but questions can also be submitted via email, web chat or through the agency’s social media platforms on Twitter and Facebook. The telephone number for hearing impaired applicants was discontinued due to limited demand.

“I’ve used the help line — it is helpful,” Andrews says. “There are times when it is busy, but eventually you will get through to an operator who can provide assistance, whether it’s technical assistance with your ID, the form or if it’s a question on a question. They understand all the questions on the form.”

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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Completing the FAFSA: Everything You Should Know originally appeared on usnews.com

Correction 11/08/18: A previous version of this article misstated what a parent who does not have a Social Security number can do.

Correction 09/19/19: A previous version of this article referenced subsidized Stafford loans instead of unsubsidized Stafford loans.

Update 10/01/21: This article has been updated with new information.

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