How to apply for federal student aid through the FAFSA

The FAFSA unlocks the potential for numerous financial benefits, even if you think your family may not qualify. File early and annually, immediately after Oct. 1, if possible.

Tags: Student, Goals, Education, Be prepared, Loans
Published: April 05, 2018

Every year, the federal government awards about $150 billion in the form of grants, low interest loans and work-study funds to help millions of students pay for college, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which uses the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine students’ eligibility for federal financial aid.

Should you complete the FAFSA?

Every family should complete this application — many of the merit-based awards provided by educational institutions (including private colleges) are determined through completion of this free application.

What are the potential benefits of completing the FAFSA?

Undergraduate students received an average of $14,400 in grants, aid and loans according to the College Board 2017 Trends in Student Aid. Even if the results don’t show the need for financial aid, every student can qualify for unsubsidized Stafford loans.

Additionally, many state governments, colleges and private universities use the FAFSA to award their own aid and determine merit-based scholarships.

What is the expected family contribution (EFC)?

The EFC is the amount the government believes your family can afford for college, based on the data you provide on the FAFSA. The EFC determines whether a student qualifies for federal and state grants, federally subsidized student work-study programs and loans. It’s also a main factor colleges use to determine the size of the aid package they extend to a given student.

What can be done to maximize your federal aid eligibility?

Income has the biggest impact on a needs-based financial aid award. The formula for computing the EFC can be found at The FAFSA does not assess the family home, retirement accounts, life insurance policies or annuities.

You may want to shift income or spend assets strategically the year before applying. For example, consider paying down the mortgage on your primary home and purchasing personal items (computer or dorm supplies) that your student will need, since these assets aren’t considered in the expected family contribution.

If your family needs all your liquid financial assets for college costs, you should consider moving funds from a student account to a 529 plan or one held in the parent’s name, to reduce exposure.

When is the application due?

You should file early and annually, as soon after Oct. 1 as you can, to improve the chances of accessing the most financial aid possible. Aid is limited and much of it is offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

Deadlines for applying for state and institutional financial aid vary by school. State deadlines can be found at Some are as early as March 1, others are as late as June 30.

What types of financial aid are available?

The types of financial aid include loans, grants and work-study programs that are described at Federal student loans offer fixed interest rates and income-based repayment plans, which are not typically offered with private loans. All loans need to be paid back with interest.

How to get started 

1. Gather the following documents needed for the application process:

  • Social Security numbers (parents and student)
  • Driver’s license numbers (parents and student) or equivalent legal identification
  • W2 forms and tax return from previous year (parents and student)Investment statements – stocks, bonds, real estate (other than main residence), business and farm assets
  • Bank statements (savings and checking)
  • Records of untaxed income (child support, interest income and veterans non-education benefits)Federal School Codes, provided by the schools or they can be found at the website—select “School Code Search” on main page. Create a Federal Student Aid “FSA” ID to sign electronically. Go to
  • Print and complete the PDF FAFSA worksheet before completing the online application (optional)

2. Complete the application and file one of three ways:

Option 1: Login to apply online at This is the method recommended by FAFSA. It has built-in help to guide you through the process. Also, the schools listed on the application will receive the information faster.

Option 2: Complete a PDF FAFSA. The PDF FAFSA must be mailed for processing. It is available to print and fill out manually or is screen-fillable. Note that if the screen-fillable option is selected, the data cannot be saved to the computer.

Option 3: Request a paper FAFSA by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 319-337-5665. The hearing impaired can contact the TTY line at 1-800-730-8913.

What happens after FAFSA completion?

You will receive the calculated expected family contribution in early spring, which defines the amount your family is asked to contribute to college. Results will be sent to you and the school(s) listed on the application.

If you’re eligible, the student financial aid award will be disbursed by the college. They will provide a summary of all sources of aid (loans, grants, scholarships and/or federal work study) based on eligibility determined by FAFSA. They will also explain how it will be disbursed (semester, quarter, trimester).


Continue reading to learn more about planning for your children’s education.


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