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The Edmit Guide to the FAFSA

Key Takeaways:

  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the form that determines your financial aid from the government and most colleges.
  • The form collects personal and financial information from students and parents, and applies a formula to determine your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC.
  • The most important factors are income, assets, and the number of children enrolled in college.
  • The FAFSA becomes available every October for the following academic year.
  • You will get your financial aid package after being accepted to colleges.

If you’d like to receive help paying for college, it all starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. Financial aid offices at colleges and universities — from community colleges to Ivy League institutions — use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for financial aid, including student loans, grants, scholarships, and federal work-study programs. A completed FAFSA form sets the groundwork for a student’s financial aid package and is used to determine the expected family contribution and need-based aid at any given school.

Even if you think you make too much money for financial aid, you should still take the time to complete the FAFSA. According to a Discover Loans survey, only 45 percent of parents filled out the FAFSA — even though 74 percent of that same group were worried about having enough money to help their students pay for college. 

When it comes to federal financial aid and school-based financial aid availability, don’t assume you won’t qualify. Start with the FAFSA (and, if your potential school requires it, the CSS Profile), and see which financial aid packages are offered to you.

“You have nothing to lose by applying, just fill out the forms,” says Columbia University’s David Sheridan. “There’s the very real possibility that if [you think] you’re not going to qualify for anything, so you don’t bother applying, you might be missing out on something that you could have received.”

Need more reasons to fill it out? Read this.


Where Do I Get a FAFSA Form?

You can find the FAFSA at fafsa.ed.gov. The form should be completed online at the official FAFSA site administered by the U.S. Department of Education, and is always free to complete and submit. If you find yourself on a copycat site or a site offering assistance to complete and file the FAFSA for a fee, stay away!

Need help filling it out? There’s plenty of (free) guidance and information available on Edmit and the FAFSA website. 

Who Should Use the FAFSA

Even if you think you make too much money for financial aid, you should still submit the FAFSA. When it comes to federal financial aid and school-based financial aid availability, don’t assume you won’t qualify. 

The FAFSA considers many factors while determining student financial need — more than just income and assets. So even if your family’s income is $250,000 and you have assets over a million dollars, still apply! You might still be eligible to receive financial aid. As long as you meet the basic eligibility requirements (high school diploma or equivalent, satisfactory academic progress, etc.), you should use the FAFSA to apply for federal financial aid.

Note that graduate students are also eligible for the FAFSA, though Edmit focuses solely on undergraduate enrollment.

What Documents Do I Need to File the FAFSA?

The FAFSA collects personal and financial information from dependent students and their parents, delivering that information to the schools at which the student applied.

First step: Register for an FSA ID on the Federal Student Aid website. This ID enables you to apply for federal financial aid, serves as a legal signature, and makes it easier to add or change information on your application later. Parents and students should each apply for their own FSA ID. Learn more here.

You will also need the federal school code for each school you are planning to apply to. Use the Federal School Code Search tool to locate any school’s code.

Once all necessary FSA IDs are established and federal school codes found, have the following information ready to seamlessly complete the FAFSA:

Personal data

  • Student Social Security number
  • Parent(s) Social Security numbers, if you are a dependent student
  • Student driver’s license number, if applicable
  • Student Alien Registration number, if not a U.S. citizen

Financial information

  • Federal tax information (via W2 information or tax returns) for the student, student’s spouse, and student’s parents, if applicable
  • Records of untaxed income, such as retirement plan withdrawals
  • Other financial holdings, such as savings accounts or investments

For more details on the documents needed to complete the FAFSA, visit the FAFSA website

Filling Out the FAFSA

Once you’ve gathered the required info, you’re ready to start filling out the FAFSA. Head to the FAFSA site and log in with your FSA ID before starting the application.

You’ll first enter the student’s personal details, such as the Social Security number and citizenship status, before being asked a series of questions to determine the student’s dependency status (most students will be listed as a dependent).

The next section asks for info about the parents. You’ll provide personal details, along with financial data such as income, assets, and tax forms. For the 2020-21 FAFSA form, you’ll be entering info from the 2018 tax year. You may even be able to use the included IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which can automatically import previous tax returns into the form. 

The FAFSA should walk you through any questions you have about who counts as a parent and how instances of divorce, step-parents, and other situations should be filed. You can also get answers on the Federal Student Aid site.  

Lastly, you’ll need to provide information about the student’s finances (and the student’s spouse, if applicable). Many young people won’t have much to report, especially since the FAFSA essentially looks at tax records from two years prior. However, it’s still important to take your time in this section and provide all the info that’s requested. 

You’ll also be asked to list all the schools you plan to apply to. You must list at least one, and you can list up to 10 in the online application. In some states, the order in which you list schools matters if you hope to be considered for state aid. See which states this applies to here.

While all of the above sounds like a lot of work, you don’t have to do it all at once. Spend some time gathering all your forms first, then sit down and start the application. And if you can’t finish all in one sitting, you can save your progress and return later. 

When Do I Need to Complete the FAFSA?

Get your calendar reminders ready! It is vitally important that you submit your FAFSA form by the financial aid deadline.

Though the federal deadline to submit your FAFSA is June 30th of each year at midnight CST, state and college deadlines have their own requirements and cutoffs for financial aid consideration. State deadlines can be found at the Federal Student Aid deadlines site, but you will have to check with your financial aid office about specific college deadlines.

Regardless of deadlines though, it is best practice to submit the FAFSA as soon as possible after it opens for filing on October 1 of every year. When it comes to filing the FAFSA, early applicants may get more money, says a 2015 Edvisors survey. The survey showed that students who filed within the first three months received double the financial aid package at their accepted schools compared to those students who waited. If your financial circumstances change between your FAFSA submission and school enrollment, contact your financial aid office to update your financial aid package.

For a given academic year, the U.S. Department of Education allows students to submit the FAFSA forms between October of the previous academic year and June of the current academic year, with the federal FAFSA deadline that same June. For example, the FAFSA for the 2020-21 academic year was made available on October 1, 2019, with a federal deadline of midnight CST on June 30, 2020.

The information you’ll provide is from what is called “prior prior year” so that you have access to a full year of financial information when filling it out in October. This means that for a student going from high school to college, the tax year starting January of their sophomore year and concluding in December of their junior year is the first tax year to “count” for financial aid.

Learn more information about FAFSA deadlines. 


How Is Financial Aid Calculated?

It is important to complete the FAFSA accurately and thoroughly. The data collected on this financial aid application will help determine the need-based aid for which you are eligible.

There are four factors that determine this aid.

  • Your year in school
  • Your enrollment status (i.e. full-time or part-time)
  • Cost of attendance (COA)
  • Expected family contribution (EFC)

The cost of attendance (COA) is how much it will cost for you to go to a specific college for one school year. This includes tuition, room and board, books, supplies, and other related expenses. Your COA will vary from school to school.

Your expected family contribution (EFC) is calculated from the info you provide on the FAFSA. This is the amount of money the government thinks your family could reasonably pay for one academic year.

Your EFC subtracted from a school’s COA will equal the student’s financial need. So if a school’s COA is $15,000 and your EFC is $10,000, your financial need is $5,000 — and you may be eligible for aid covering this amount. 

Financial need is the value that the FAFSA suggests the student will require in financial aid to cover the cost of a specific school. This number will vary from college to college, as the cost of attendance at each institution will differ. From this information, your schools will individually determine how much to offer you in aid.


More About the EFC

The EFC value is calculated by reviewing your family’s income and asset net worth. 

Total income includes student and parent income. If parents are divorced or separated, or you are a student with no custodial parents, learn more here.

Net assets include any investments, businesses, or savings accounts. Make sure to review the qualifying and non-qualifying assets before completing the form. Don’t accidentally include non-required assets on the application, or you could receive less aid than you would otherwise be eligible for.

Here's an in-depth look at what assets are counted on the FAFSA.

The EFC calculation also takes into account your family’s size and the number of dependents already enrolled in school. In general, the EFC will be lower for low-income students with few assets and higher for a family with a high net income and many assets.

Worried you will have a high EFC? What if your EFC is higher than you can afford?


What Types of Aid Are Offered Through the FAFSA?

A completed FAFSA form sets the groundwork for a student’s financial aid package and is used to determine the expected family contribution and need-based financial aid at any given school. There are a variety of aid types available to students through the FAFSA process including federal student loans, federal grants, scholarships, and federal work-study programs.

Federal grants 

There are many grants available to students. This is free money, meaning that it doesn’t need to be paid back. Grants are most often need-based and will be completely dependent on your FAFSA results.


You might be offered scholarships through your school. This is also free money that won’t need to be paid back. Often this money is merit-based, meaning that you earned it for outstanding grades, athletics, or some other achievement. There will likely also be stipulations attached to this money, so you may be required to maintain satisfactory academic progress or certain grades to keep receiving the financial award. There are many ways to access scholarship money.

Work-Study Programs

Part of your financial aid package might include work-study options. This is money you will be expected to pay by working at a part-time campus job. If you are eligible for work-study, your school will be required to reserve you a post. Speak to your financial aid or employment office for more information on their process.

Federal Student Loans

There are various loans offered through the federal government (such as subsidized and unsubsidized loans), all of which you will need to pay back with interest. Here’s how to apply.

When it comes time to accept your aid, do it in the order shown in this section: free money from grants or scholarships, earned money, then borrowed money. If you don’t need to take out loans, don’t.

Again, your aid package will come directly through your schools. If you see any issues with the financial aid offered to you, contact your financial aid office immediately. This also applies if you feel as though you haven’t received enough money to cover the cost of attendance. For example, you can appeal your financial aid package.


How Long Does it Take to Get the FAFSA money?

You’ve sent in the completed FAFSA form well before the deadlines and got your Student Aid Report (SAR) confirming all of your information was received. After filing the FAFSA, you’ve notified the colleges you applied to that you want to be considered for financial aid and completed any additional school-specific requirements and applications. 

Most schools send financial aid award letters to students along with college acceptance letters or shortly after, so you may have a few months of lag time between your submission and receipt of your aid letter. Once you receive the aid letter, you will need to accept or deny the offered aid before the financial aid deadlines.


Need More Information?

Remember, the FAFSA must be submitted before every year that a student intends to enroll in college. If you have any questions about the FAFSA process, review the FAFSA website, talk to a financial aid administrator, or sign up with Edmit. Good luck!