The FAFSA is the most important part of applying for student aid. It's also one of the more annoying parts of the student loan process. With our guide, you'll be able to fill out the FAFSA like a pro and save yourself the headache.

There are a lot of places to look for financial aid as a college student. But you’ll want to start looking in the easiest place possible first. That is the federal government. Every college you apply to will ask you to fill out the FAFSA if you’re searching for financial aid (and even if you don’t think you’ll need any).

So, first things first, what is the FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for “free application for Federal student aid.”

Filling out the FAFSA is required to be considered for several kinds of financial aid—from need-based PELL Grants to unsubsidized Stafford Loans available to most college students, regardless of financial need.

Like all government forms, completing the FAFSA requires some attention to detail and a fair amount of patience. Fortunately, however, you can do it all online at FAFSA.ed.gov.

FAFSA requirements: Information to gather

Before you even open up the FAFSA, you’ll need to get some paperwork in order to answer a majority of the questions.

Most traditional students will be filling out the form based on their parents’ financial information, but we’ll cover what to do if you’re not dependent on your parents in a later post.

Assuming you’re using your parent(s) info, you’ll need:

  • Your parents’ income tax forms from the previous year, including W-2s
  • Your and your parents’ Social Security numbers (or Alien Registration number if you’re not a U.S. citizen)
  • Records of investments and all assets (e.g., if your parents own a business or rental property)
  • Record of untaxed income (child support received, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits)
  • Your driver’s license number or state ID number (your parent’s license number is not required)

FAFSA deadlines

For the 2017-18 school year, you’ll need to fill out the application anytime between October 1, 2016 and Midnight (CST) June 30, 2018.

If you need to many any corrections or updates, they must be submitted by midnight (CST) September 15, 2018.

The FAFSA used to be released in January, but is now available a few months earlier.

While these are the FAFSA dates set by the department of education, many schools have their own timelines. If you apply for early admission at colleges, most require that you also have your FAFSA submitted by that date as well. You can check the deadlines for individual schools here. If you do not fill out the FAFSA by your school’s deadline, you will not qualify for aid that year, so it’s important to know what their dates are.

It’s also important to note, that you will have to fill out a new FAFSA for every year in which you want financial aid!

How to complete the FAFSA, step-by-step

Step 1: Create an account (FSA ID)

This is pretty simple—just go online to the Federal Student Aid site and create a username and password. If it’s the first time you’re creating an account, you’ll need to wait one to three days for verification.

Your parents will also need to create a FSA ID.

Do not lose these IDs. As obvious as that sounds, it can seriously delay your application if you mix up your IDs or need to contact someone about remembering it.

Step 2: Start your application

The first time you fill out the FAFSA will be a pain. There is a lot of information to get through when you first create an account. Luckily, after the first time you fill it out, you can “renew” it each year and your basic information will already be entered.

On October 1st you can log in, using your FSA ID at fafsa.gov and click “start a new FAFSA.”

Step 3: Student demographic information section

This is the first section you’ll see. It’s your basic information, like name, date of birth, Social Security number, etc.

It’s import that you input your name exactly as it is on your Social Security number. No nicknames.

Luckily, this is the information that will carry over from one year to another—you won’t have to fill it out every year unless you change the name on your SSN.

Step 4: School section

You’ll be asked to put which schools you want to send your FAFSA to. Put every one of your schools in! Even if you think they’ll just be safety schools—you never know what could happen. I knew plenty of people who ended up going to their safety schools based on cost.

You can add up to ten schools to your list—make sure you use that to your advantage.

Step 5: Dependency status

Here’s where things can get a little complicated if you’re not reliant on your parents. The questions you answer in this section will determine if you need your parents’ information on the FAFSA.

Below are the questions you’ll be asked:

Were you born before Jan. 1, 1994?YesNo
As of today, are you married? (Also answer “Yes” if you are separated but not divorced.)YesNo 
At the beginning of the 2017–18 school year, will you be working on a master’s or doctorate program (such as an M.A., M.B.A., M.D., J.D., Ph.D., Ed.D., graduate certificate, etc.)?YesNo
Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training? (If you are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee, are you on active duty for other than state or training purposes?)YesNo
Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?*YesNo
Do you now have—or will you have—children who will receive more than half of their support from you between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018?YesNo
Do you have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through June 30, 2018?YesNo
At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in  foster care , or were you a dependent or ward of the court?YesNo
Has it been determined by a court in your state of legal residence that you are an  emancipated minor  or that someone other than your parent or stepparent has  legal guardianship  of you? (You also should answer "Yes" if you are now an adult but were in legal guardianship or were an emancipated minor immediately before you reached the age of being an adult in your state. Answer "No" if the court papers say "custody" rather than "guardianship.")YesNo
At any time on or after July 1, 2016, were you determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was  homeless  or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, as determined by (a) your high school or district homeless liaison, (b) the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or (c) the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program?**YesNo

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you’ll be considered an independent student and you won’t put your parents’ information. If you answer no, you’re considered dependent and you will put your parents’ info.

Step 6: Parent demographics

If you have to give your parents information, this is where you’ll do it. Remember, even if you don’t live with your parents or a guardian, you’re likely to still have to give their information.

Parent information can be complicated if your parents are divorced and one is your primary caregiver, or if you live with a guardian or foster parents. But the FAFSA gives guides for each.

Step 7: Financial section

This is where things get fun. Not.

It’s in this section that you’ll need all your parents’ tax information, as well as your own. There’s a couple ways of going about this section.

IRS Data Retrieval Tool

You can use this tool to import your parents’ data directly from the IRS. In my personal experience, this tool doesn’t always work quite the way you want it to, but it’s been a few years since I last filled out the FAFSA—a lot could have changed.

Most people are eligible to use the tool if they’ve already filed their taxes before filling out the form. But there are a few instances where you may not be able to use the tool:

  • The student/parent is married, and either the student/parent or his/her spouse filed as Married Filing Separately.
  • The student/parent is married, and either the student/parent or his/her spouse filed as Head of Household.
  • The parents’ marital status is “Unmarried and both parents living together.”
  • The student/parent filed a Form 1040X amended tax return. Remember, the Form 1040X is used to correct your original tax return.
  • The student/parent filed a Puerto Rican or foreign tax return.

So if you’re taxes are at all complicated, chances are, you’ll have to input your information manually.

Step 8: Sign and submit your FAFSA

Once you’ve reached this step, you’re almost there! Now, you and your parents will need to electronically sign using your FSA IDs and pins (again, it’s important not to forget those pins!)

After you submit your FAFSA, you’ll receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). This will give you an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This is not the exact amount you and your family will need to pay, it is simply what your schools will use to determine how much aid to give you.

After you submit your FAFSA

How long will you need to wait to hear about aid?

This obviously depends on when you submit your FAFSA. Here’s a brief table on when you’ll receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) based on a few different factors.

Filed the FAFSA Online?Signed the FAFSA with FSA IDs?Provided Valid Email Address on the FAFSA?Time to Receive SARType of SAR
YesYesYes3-5 daysLink by email
YesYesNo7-10 daysPaper SAR Acknowledgement by mail
YesNoYes2 weeksLink by email
YesNoNo2 weeksPaper by mail
NoNoYes2 weeksLink by email
NoNoNo3 weeksPaper by mail

This is a simple report you’ll receive—it does not mean that’s what you’re guaranteed to get from your school.

You’ll receive a full aid report from your school when they send you an acceptance letter.

Don’t forget the CSS Profile

If you thought the FAFSA was a pain to fill out, the CSS Profile is worse. This financial aid form is similar to the FAFSA, but asks more detailed questions. Not all schools require it, but many do.

The annoying thing about this form is that is costs money to submit it. It’s $25 for one school, plus $16 for additional schools. Thankfully, most schools allow you to submit this after you’ve agreed to attend, so you shouldn’t have to send to more than one school.

The CSS Profile allows your school to create a more accurate aid report. You’ll also need to complete this form every year.

More financial aid resources

Money Under 30 is here to help you make informed decisions about paying for school. Check out some of our most popular articles about student loans and the financial aid process.

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About the author

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Christopher Murray is a professional personal finance and sustainability writer who enjoys writing about everything from budgeting to unique investing options like SRI and cryptocurrency. He also focuses on how sustainability is the best savings tool around. You can find his work on sites like MoneyGeek, Money Under 30, Investor Junkie, MoneyCrashers, and Time. You can find out more about Christopher on his website or via LinkedIn.