Listen – we feel your pain. We know how challenging it can be to try and navigate the financial aid system. There are so many moving parts and mountains of information to gather. To help ease your burden, we thought it prudent to put together a step-by-step process of how the FAFSA works.
Step 1 – Get a FAFSA ID
In order to fill out your paperwork, you’ll need a FAFSA ID (as well as a username and password). In turn, these items will allow you to sign in electronically. And while you can get your ID as you fill out your forms, you also have the option of getting your ID ahead of time (which we recommend). Additionally, we should note that your FAFSA ID can also be used to access certain information online as well as sign loan contracts.
Step 2 – Collecting the Necessary Documents for the Application
The folks at FAFSA want to know all about you and your family. And that means supplying them with essential information. Aside from having to list your name, date of birth and address, you’ll also need:
- Your Social Security Number
- Your Parents’ Social Security Numbers (assuming you’ll be a dependent student)
- Your Driver’s License Number (if that applies)
- Alien Registration Number (if that applies)
- Federal Tax Information/Tax Returns including W-2 information for you, your spouse (if applicable) and your parents (assuming you’re a dependent student)
- Records of Untaxed Income (interest income, child support, Veteran non-education benefits – if applicable)
- Info on cash, savings and checking account balances, any investments you’ve made (including stocks, bonds and real estate – excluding your home), business and farm assets – for you or your parents (if you’re a dependent)
We should mention that you do not need to mail in these records/documents. Instead, it’s imperative that you keep them in a safe and accessible place; you may need them again.
Additionally, it’s important to realize that your family may be able to have your tax info automatically imported from the IRS. It’s worthwhile investigating this option.
Step 3 – Starting the FAFSA
Starting a FAFSA is actually fairly easy. Simply head on over to fafsa.gov and click “start a new FAFSA.” Yes – that’s all it really takes. Remember – the name and social security number you use must match what’s on your actual social security card (hence no nicknames). Additionally, close to the beginning of the application, you’ll have the opportunity to create a save key. Make sure you do this! As you probably already inferred, the save key allows you to save the work you’ve done thus far and return at a later time to finish completing the application. It also lets you and your parents share the document from different locations.
A reminder – if you filled out the FAFSA last year and are looking to renew, you’ll want to login from the homepage. Next, just select “FAFSA Renewal” after the option appears. This way, a good deal of your information will already be there. All you’ll have to do is update any info that has changed from the previous year.
Step 4 – Selecting Colleges and/or Career Schools
We don’t want you to panic. However, the FAFSA does require you to list at least one school where you’d like your information sent. These colleges will then use your FAFSA to determine both the type and amount of aid they’ll offer you (pending acceptance of course).
It’s important to understand that for the purposes of federal aid, the order in which you list schools will not matter. Conversely, order may matter when it comes to state aid. Indeed, some states require students to list schools in a particular order (ex. having to write a state school first).
The online application allows you to list up to 10 colleges (the paper app only leaves room for four). Fear not; you can always add more schools later. And rest assured that none of the colleges will be able to see the other institutions you listed.
Step 5 – Establishing Dependency Status
When filling out the FAFSA, you’ll be asked a series of questions regarding whether or not you’re a dependent or independent student. As a dependent student, you would be relying on your parents for financial support. If that is the case, as indicated in Step 2, your parents will need to report their own financial info as well.
Step 6 – Signing and Submitting the FAFSA
Finally, before your application can be processed, you have to sign and submit it. Be sure you sign using your FAFSA ID. That way your app will be processed as quickly as possible.
You’ll know you’ve successfully submitted your FAFSA once you’ve received a confirmation page. If you’ve supplied your email address, you’ll also receive a second confirmation in your inbox. However, that confirmation will contain slightly different information. Therefore, we also recommend printing out the confirmation that appears on screen.
Finally, the confirmation page also provides an option for your parents’ information to be transferred automatically to another student’s FAFSA. If you have siblings, this will come in handy.
The financial aid process as a whole - and the FAFSA in particular - can initially appear confusing and overwhelming. Fortunately, if you break everything down step-by-step, you realize it’s not quite as scary or difficult as you imagined. Don’t worry; you’ve got this!