On Oct. 1, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — better known as the FAFSA — opens for students planning to attend college during the 2021-22 school year. Completing your FAFSA each year puts you in the running for grants, loans and work-study opportunities that can help offset out-of-pocket college costs.
If you’ll be heading to school for the first time or returning for another year of classes during the 2021-22 school year, here’s what you need to know about completing the FAFSA.
How to prepare for the FAFSA application
Before applying, brush up on the FAFSA requirements to make sure you qualify. Getting convicted of a drug offense or having defaulted on federal student loans might make you ineligible for aid.
You should also gather all of the information and documents you need for the application. Here’s what to have on hand:
Your Social Security number or Alien Registration Number.
Federal income tax returns and W-2s to show how much money you earn.
Records of nontaxable income, such as child support and veterans benefits.
Financial statements, including bank statements and investment records.
If you’re a dependent, you’ll need to provide the above information for your parents as well. Try to get all of the information together beforehand so you can finish the application in one sitting.
“A little bit of homework can go a long way. Of those who file [the FAFSA], nearly half wait until January or later, and that procrastination can be costly,” says Ashley Boucher, a spokesperson for Sallie Mae.
That’s because some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. The closer to the FAFSA opening date (Oct. 1) you file, the better chance you may have to lock in award money.
Applying for the FAFSA
There are a few basic steps in filling out the FAFSA.
Set up your FSA ID
To start the application, you need to set up an FSA ID for yourself and one of your parents if you’re a dependent. The FSA ID is used to log in to your application and electronically sign the application when you’re ready to submit it.
If you’re a student returning to the application, you can put in the FSA ID from last year and hit “FAFSA renewal.” This will pull some of the information from last year’s application.
Add your personal information and schools
The personal information section will ask for your Social Security number, birthdate and driver’s license. There’s also a school section, where you can add up to 10 schools where you want the FAFSA information to be sent.
If you’re unsure which schools you want to apply for, don’t worry; you can make changes to this list later. Also consider putting at least one state school on the list.
“If you aren’t happy with your aid packages, state schools and community colleges are much cheaper with in-state tuition, so it’s always good to have that option,” says Charlie Javice, founder of Frank, a startup that helps students complete the FAFSA application process.
Some states require that a state school is at the top of the list to be considered for state aid, so be sure to check with your state’s guidelines.
Enter the financials
Next on the application is inputting the financial information that will be used to determine your aid eligibility. For the 2021-22 year, you will input financial information for the 2019 tax year. To make your life a bit easier, you may be able to add financial information from your tax return to the FAFSA application using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.
Submit the FAFSA
You can apply by paper using the printable PDF version, through the myStudentAid mobile app or on the Federal Student Aid website. After submitting the application, look out for a confirmation screen to verify completion.
Should you file the FAFSA early?
The federal deadline for the 2021-22 FAFSA submission is 11:59 p.m. Central Time on June 30, 2022. But states may also have their own FAFSA deadline, so check that date before putting “fill out my FAFSA” at the bottom of your to-do list.
The sooner you apply, the better. When it comes to the FAFSA, the early bird catches the “free money,” because some aid funds can run out as people apply for aid.
Getting in your application as soon as possible is also a good idea even if you’re undecided. “The earlier you complete the FAFSA, the earlier you’ll get your financial aid award letters so you’ll have more time to compare school offers and make an informed decision,” says Kat Tretina, a certified student loan counselor based in Florida.
When should you wait to file the FAFSA?
If you have questions about the FAFSA form — such as how to determine your dependency status and what assets to include in your net worth — you might want to wait and ask for help, since submitting the wrong information could impact your eligibility.
There are “Help” buttons throughout the FAFSA application, or you can contact StudentAid.gov or your school’s financial aid office to ask questions. However, you shouldn’t put the application on the back burner for too long. If you delay completing the FAFSA, you could be left with student loans as your only financial aid option, says Tretina.
It’s worth noting that completing the FAFSA isn’t required to go to school. In fact, research published by Sallie Mae shows that nearly one-third of families skipped the FAFSA altogether last year. “Many believe they won’t qualify for aid, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that nearly all who apply qualify for some,” says Boucher.
If you’re not planning on doing the FAFSA, you may want to give it a second thought. The application is free, and although answering the questions can be monotonous, investing the time may be worth a shot at getting aid to offset your out-of-pocket costs.
When do you find out about the FAFSA?
It takes three to five days to process your online application and seven to 10 days to process a paper application. After the application is processed, you’ll get a Student Aid Report (SAR), which outlines your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This information is sent to the schools on your list, and it determines your financial aid package.
What if you don’t get enough aid?
If you don’t get the amount of aid you were hoping for, you can file an appeal and negotiate your aid package, according to Javice. If there’s been a change to your finances since you filed taxes for 2019 — perhaps you or your parents lost a job because of the pandemic — you can request that the school revisit the offer to account for your current financial situation.
If you got a better aid award at your “second choice” school, you could even ask your top choice to match it. Besides negotiating your aid, you can apply for other scholarships and grants.
Javice also recommends considering community college to obtain credits that you can transfer to a four-year school if you don’t get enough award money. These credits could cost a fraction of the price and put you on the path to obtaining the same degree.
The bottom line
There are a lot of decisions to make when it comes to college. Where should you go? And, most importantly, how are you going to pay for it all? Submitting your FAFSA application right away can get you financial aid offers sooner than later so you can compare options and figure out how to bridge the financial gap if the award money isn’t enough to cover the cost.
Understanding FAFSA deadlines
What are the FAFSA requirements?
The complete guide to college scholarships and grants