Everything You Should Know About FAFSA

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    Attending college is a huge financial commitment. This is why understanding your financial aid package and familiarizing yourself with the FAFSA definition, FAFSA guidelines, FAFSA requirements, and FAFSA qualifications are crucial steps in the college application process. You will also want to engage in financial planning for college and discuss the financial realities of attending college.

    What's FAFSA and why is it important?

    Many students know that FAFSA and financial aid are linked somehow but do not know what FAFSA stands for or how it works. 

    FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid and helps schools determine individual financial aid packages. These financial aid packages will likely include a combination of grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans. 

    So if you’re wondering: is FAFSA a loan or grant?, the answer is potentially both. It’s important for all students to fill out the FAFSA. Attending college is a huge financial investment and you may receive more aid than you initially suspect.

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    FAFSA timeline

    The FAFSA open date is October 1st and the federal FAFSA application deadline is June 30th. That said, each school, and state, has its own priority FAFSA deadlines and it’s a good idea to file the FAFSA as soon as possible.

    Certain state and college grants and scholarships operate on a first-come-first-serve basis, so it’s important to fill out the FAFSA as close to the October 1st open date as possible. Not only will this give you adequate time to make changes and adjustments if necessary, but it will also ensure that you are considered for all possible scholarships, grants, and financial aid opportunities. 

    FAFSA deadlines

    There are three FAFSA deadlines to consider: each college’s priority deadline, your state’s priority deadline, and the federal due date of June 30th. Typically, colleges’ priority deadlines are the earliest among these three deadlines, so be sure to find out these dates as soon as possible so you can plan accordingly. You will need to fill out the FAFSA each year you are enrolled in college.

    What you need to know to get started

    The first step to filling out the FAFSA is to create a FAFSA account at fafsa.gov. There is also a paper version of the FAFSA that you can download as a PDF and print; you can also call 1-877-433-7827 to have a hard copy delivered to your home. 

    Most people prefer the online FAFSA. This is because it is processed quickly and you have the option to link your application to the IRS to retrieve your relevant tax information. This is known as the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. It is worth noting that the FAFSA asks for your tax information from two years prior. If your financial situation has changed dramatically since then, you will want to reach out to individual schools’ financial aid offices. 

    Once you create a FAFSA account, both you and your parents will be asked to create your FSA ID. After you create your FSA ID (Federal Student Aid), the Social Security Administration will take one to three days to verify the information. After your FSA ID is set up and verified, you will receive an email inviting you to begin your application. Your FSA ID will act as your electronic signature. 

    It is worth noting that you need a Social Security Number to create an FSA. If your parent does not have an SSN, enter all zeros where it asks for your parent’s SSN. Then select the option to print a signature page at the end of the application. 

    What documents you’ll need for FAFSA

    The best way to fill out the FAFSA efficiently is to make sure that you gather all of the appropriate documents and information. Below is a FAFSA checklist to help make sure you track down all the necessary information before you begin.

    FAFSA checklist

    You will also be asked to fill out other demographic information, including how many people are in your household and whether or not you have siblings enrolled in college. Ultimately, these answers, combined with the information outlined in your various financial documents, are how FAFSA is calculated.

    Who fills out FAFSA?

    Both you and your parents will need to fill out the FAFSA, regardless of whether your parents plan to help fund your education. Completing the FAFSA as thoroughly as possible will likely increase the number of grants, loans, and scholarships available to you.

    More generally, everyone applying to college should fill out the FAFSA. Federal financial aid is available to U.S. citizens, nationals, legal permanent residents, and individuals with an Arrival-Departure Record from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

    Who should file as a dependent?

    If the following criteria describe you, you will fill out the FAFSA as a “dependent,” regardless of whether your parents plan to financially contribute to your college education.

    • Under 24 years old by December 31 
    • Enrolling in an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program
    • Unmarried, with no children or dependents of your own

    Who should file as an independent?

    If one or more of the following pertains to you, you will fill out the FAFSA as an “independent.”

    • 24 years old or older by December 31
    • Enrolling in a master’s or doctorate program
    • Married or separated, but not divorced
    • Financially supporting children or dependents of your own
    • A veteran of the US Armed Forces 
    • An emancipated minor or in a court-ordered legal guardianship
    • An orphan, recipient of foster care, or a ward of the court (for any period after age 13)
    • Homeless or at risk of being homeless
    • Currently serving on active duty

    What you need to know about your Student Aid Report (SAR)

    After you submit the FAFSA, the Department of Education will send you, as well as the schools you listed on your application, your Student Aid Report (SAR). The Student Aid Report (SAR) is a summary of the FAFSA; it is not a financial aid offer. That means that after you receive your Student Aid Report (SAR), you are still able to file changes to FAFSA after you receive your SAR. This is why it is important to review this document thoroughly and promptly report any mistakes if necessary. 

    The SAR includes your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). Despite its name, this number is not necessarily the amount of money you will be expected to pay. Rather, schools use this number to help assemble your financial aid package.  

    How do schools determine financial aid

    Each school calculates financial aid a little differently, but the basic financial equation is the same: Cost of Attendance (COA) minus Expected Family Contribution (EFC) equals Financial Need. 

    Financial Need represents the maximum need-based aid you can receive. Need-based aid refers to Pell Grants, Direct Subsidized Loans, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and federal work-study. Individual schools will contact you in the Spring with financial aid offers. These offers will likely be a combination of grants, scholarships, and loans. 

    If a financial aid offer includes more loans than you feel comfortable taking out, you can contact the financial aid office and decline part of your financial aid package. Just make sure to fill out any necessary paperwork by their financial aid deadline. 

    FAFSA help

    The FAFSA can be a confusing process and lots of parents and students have questions about how FAFSA works and other logistical factors concerning FAFSA, including FAFSA income limits and FAFSA eligibility. If you need FAFSA application help, reach out to the Federal Student Aid Information Center

    There are lots of FAFSA tips and tricks to consider, but ultimately, reaching out directly to the Federal Student Aid Information Center will provide you with the most up-to-date FAFSA questions and answers; they will also provide you with information that’s tailored specifically to your needs. Through this site, you will be provided with a phone number and email, as well as an option to live chat.   

    Key takeaways and moving forward

    Completing the FAFSA is a crucial step in financing your college application. That said, it’s important to research scholarship opportunities as well. After all, attending college is a huge financial investment and you will likely need as much assistance as you can receive. 

    If you need assistance with writing an essay for scholarships or any other part of the college application process, reach out to learn more about our college counseling programs. Applying to college and understanding financial aid is a lengthy process that can feel confusing. Here at Prepory, we have the resources to help you succeed. 

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