College is costly, but you can help offset some of the costs by applying for financial aid. You can receive assistance from schools, federal and local governments. The first step to see if you qualify for any type of financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or (FAFSA).

The FAFSA is what assistance program providers review to determine the amount of assistance a student qualifies for and the student’s expected family contribution (EFC), which is the amount they expect the student’s family can afford to contribute toward the student’s college expenses.

Filling out a FAFSA may sound like a daunting task. But think of the FAFSA as the gateway to receiving money you need to pay for college expenses. Yes, this is a lengthy form but there’s no way around it. If you want to receive financial assistance, including student loans and grants from schools, the federal and local government, you have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Quick Eligibility Checklist for Federal Loans and Grants

To Qualify For Federal Aid, You Must:

  • Have a high school diploma, General Educational Development (GED) certificate, or complete a high school education in a home school approved by state law.

  • Be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program.

  • If you are a male, be registered with Selective Service System.

  • Have a valid Social Security number unless you are from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, or the Republic of Palau.

  • On the FAFSA, verify that:

    • You are not in default on a federal student loan and do not owe a refund on a federal grant.
    • You will use federal student aid for educational purposes only.
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress in college or career school.

  • Be a U.S. citizen or national* or have one of the following:

    • A green card (Form I-551, I-151, or I-551C)
    • An Arrival/Departure Record (I-94)
    • “Battered Immigrants-Qualified Aliens” status (I-797)
    • A T visa
* You are a U.S. citizen if you were born in the United States or certain U.S. territories, if you were born abroad to parents who are U.S. citizens, or if you have obtained citizenship status through naturalization. Even though you may not qualify as a U.S. citizen or national, you should still complete the FAFSA because you may qualify for state- or school-funded aid.

Students should begin filling out the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1 of the year they’re seeking assistance. Because some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, apply as soon as possible after October 1 of each year.

You may apply online or submit a paper application by mail. Paying a preparer is not necessary; this is a free application. The process is not complicated, and the online application guides you through each step. Once complete, the U.S. Department of Education reviews your information to see if you qualify for federal student loans or grants. Even if qualifying for federal assistance seems out of reach, it’s still a smart idea to complete a FAFSA to leave no doubt.

Here is a step-by-step plan to help you fill out a FAFSA quickly and efficiently.

Step 1Get a Federal Student Aid ID

Go to https://fsaid.ed.gov/npas and apply for a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. This ID will provide access to the online system and will serve as a legal signature when required. Recently, the process has moved from creating a PIN to a more technologically secure ID. This is done by creating a user ID with a password and answering a set of personal questions. If the student is listed as a dependent on one or more parents’ federal income tax returns, then the parent(s) must also apply for an ID.

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Step 2 Gather Your Documents

Before sitting down to fill out the FAFSA, it is best to be prepared with the information and paperwork needed. There are many documents that need to be referenced. For the financial and tax information, the previous year will be necessary to refer to (For example, the 2016-17 academic year, use the 2015 information).

  • The following information will be helpful in filing the FAFSA:

  • W-2 forms for the previous year or other records of money earned for student and parent(s).

  • Federal income tax return for the previous year. This might include IRS 1040, 1041-A, 1040EZ, or other forms. NOTE: Federal income tax returns can also be found using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool on the IRS.gov website. It is acceptable to estimate current income and amend the FAFSA application later.

  • Parent’s/federal income tax return for the previous year if the student is claimed as a dependent.

  • A spouse’s federal income tax return for the previous year, if married.

  • Current bank statements and investment records for student and parent(s)./

  • Any untaxed income records for the previous year.

  • Social Security number for student and parent(s).

  • Driver’s license or state ID.

  • Alien registration or permanent resident card, if the student is not a U.S. citizen.

Step 3Find Your FAFSA Deadline

Colleges don’t share a single deadline for receiving aid information; it varies from state to state. However, an early application is never harmful to you. Go to https://fafsa.ed.gov/deadlines.htm to learn the student aid deadlines for the colleges for which you plan to apply.

Finding FAFSA Help Online +

On the right of each section of the online FAFSA form, you will find a “Help and Hints” box that clarifies what is being asked and offers appropriate responses for common situations, in addition to answering other questions, as well.

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The online Help section offers links to help find answers to frequently asked questions about the FAFSA, how to apply, and how to troubleshoot problems. Applicants can use a search box to look up answers by topic.

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Step 4Start a FAFSA Application

To begin your FAFSA application, go to http://www.fafsa.gov and click the Start A New FAFSA button (or click the Login button if you’ve already begun and are returning.)

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Start your FAFSA application with the first section: Student Demographic Information.

Enter the student’s name, Social Security number, and date of birth. Be sure the Social Security number and birthdate are accurate because these will be used to verify the information. Use the same first and last name the U.S. Social Security Administration has on file to ensure that it matches what is on file. Using a nickname (Jerry instead of Gerald, for example) could cause a delay in the process.

Male citizens and male immigrants must register with the Selective Service System to qualify for federal aid. If they have not already done so, they can elect to be registered at this time. Not enlisting when required can disqualify applicants for federal aid. Other required information includes mailing address, telephone number, marital status at time of application, driver’s license information, and e-mail address. Be sure the e-mail used is current and one that is checked regularly. Correspondence will be sent via e-mail. In addition, applicants will also need to provide other information, such as high school name and location, and if federal aid has been previously received, any drug-related convictions will need to be disclosed.

Citizenship, Legal Residence, and Your FAFSA +

Under U.S. Department of Education rules, a U.S. citizen (or U.S. national) is a person who is a U.S. citizen by birth or by naturalization. Persons (except for the children of foreign diplomatic staff) who are born in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and, in most cases, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, are U.S. citizens, as are most persons born abroad to parents who are also considered U.S. citizens. All U.S. citizens are considered U.S. nationals, but not all nationals are citizens. Natives of American Samoa and Swains Island are not U.S. citizens, but are nationals and may receive federal student aid funds.

Noncitizens who may still be eligible for federal aid are those that possess a Permanent Resident Card (I-551, formerly known as an Alien Registration Receipt Card or green card), a conditional permanent resident (I-551C) card, or other eligible noncitizen record. All U.S. citizens are eligible for federal financial aid, regardless of their parent’s immigration status.

In addition, the definition of the student’s legal state of residence is the student’s fixed and permanent home. If the student moved into a state for the sole purpose of attending a school, that state does not count as the student’s legal residence. There may be a required length of time living in a state to be able to claim to be a legal resident of that state. A response of Foreign Country identifies the student as residing in a foreign country.

If the student is not a U.S. citizen or a documented resident, he does not qualify for federal aid. However, he may qualify for state or school-sourced aid, so it is still beneficial to complete a FAFSA.

Step 5Select Your Schools

The FAFSA allows up to 10 schools on the application. Don’t be shy here — a school considered out of reach for financial reasons might offer certain students a great deal on tuition, especially if minorities or fit into a category the school desires, such as an athlete.

Click the Search button to find each school’s Federal School Code. For each school, be sure to select the type of housing plan anticipated. Schools use these selections to determine expected costs.

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Step 6 Determine Your Dependency Status

The U.S. Department of Education needs to know if the student is dependent or independent. This is a determining factor in how much aid the student may get.

The federal government defines an independent student as one of the following: at least 24 years old, married, a graduate or professional student, a veteran, a member of the armed forces, an orphan, a ward of the court, someone with legal dependents other than a spouse, an emancipated minor, or someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Independent students do not receive support from their parents. They may be eligible for more aid than those who supported by their parents and claimed as a dependent on their tax returns. Applicants need to answer each question in this section carefully, especially if married, live apart from their parent(s), pay their own bills, or otherwise do not receive financial assistance from a parent. The school may require proof of any “yes” answers in this section.

A dependent student does not fall into any of the above categories, and the parent’s information will need to be provided or the application could be rejected.

Select “Unable to provide parental information” if there are special circumstances that prevent the student from providing this information. Examples include:

  • Incarcerated parent(s)

  • Student left family home due to an abusive environment

  • Parent(s) whereabouts are unknown

These are not special circumstances:

  • Parents refuse to provide necessary information

  • Parents refuse to contribute to educational expenses

  • Parents do not claim the student as a dependent on tax returns

  • Student lives separately from parents

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Step 7 Provide Parent’s Information

Students might find it easier to complete the Parent Demographics Information section with their parent(s) at their side. If the parents are divorced or separated, the student should complete this section with the parent with whom the most time was spent over the past 12 months. Be sure not to leave any questions blank.

Remember to use the Help and Hints information for clarifications to each question.

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Parents’ Information +

Parents may be reluctant to provide information for the FAFSA application. However, a student’s best chance for maximizing the amount he qualifies for is to include the parents’ financial information. Following are some common misconceptions about the FAFSA parents can put behind them.

Completing the FAFSA Obligates the Parent to Repay Student Loans

The information in a FAFSA is used solely to determine a student’s eligibility for loans and grants. Merely sharing financial information does not obligate a parent to repay any of the student’s loans. Only the student is obligated to repay these loans; parents are not co-signers. If the student defaults on the loan, only the student’s credit is affected. Federal student loans are not reported on the parent’s credit.

A parent’s Citizenship or Residency Status Matters

It’s true that a student’s citizenship and residency status will determine eligibility for federal student loans, but a parent’s citizenship and residency does not matter, and the parent’s income will still be accepted and considered if necessary.

You Must Include Parents’ Information to Receive Aid

This is not always true. If the student is considered independent, he does not need the parent’s information to apply. Omitting parent information does not automatically disqualify a student from all aid. However, not including this information may, for many dependent students, reduce the amount of aid received.

Step 8 Provide Your Financial Information

It’s helpful to have the most recent federal income tax returns on hand, if available, to complete the financial information section. Because it is possible to complete the FAFSA before most tax returns are completed for the previous year, estimated values can be used and later updated after submitting to the IRS.

If the student’s parents have completed returns for the current year, they can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to fill out the FAFSA application automatically. In fact, using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool could speed up processing of the FAFSA application.

Include accurate net-worth information and investments, including:

  • Real estate

  • Trust funds

  • Money market funds

  • Mutual funds

  • Stocks and bonds

  • CDs

  • Education savings accounts (529 and Coverdell)

FAFSA Pro Tip: ‘Prior-Prior Year’ Rule

Starting in the 2017-18 school year, the FAFSA submission date and tax return information will change. For a student attending college from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, students and parents can start submitting a FAFSA on Oct. 1, 2016. The other big change is that the U.S. Department of Education will accept tax returns from 2015. Currently, you need to submit income and tax information from the previous year. With this change, you can submit information from prior to the year before. Among student financial aid experts, this rule change is known as the “prior-prior” rule, and was announced by President Obama in September of 2015.

What the prior-prior rule means to you If you are completing the FAFSA to attend school in 2017, this means that as of October 1, 2016, you can use information from 2015 tax returns. You will not need to resubmit tax information from your 2016 returns.

Do not include:

  • parent’s home value

  • Retirement accounts

  • Insurance plans

  • Value of a parent’s business if the business employs fewer than 100 employees

A common mistake applicants make on the FAFSA is including the value of their family’s primary home or parents’ retirement plans.

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Step 9Sign and Submit the Completed FAFSA Form

Once the application is completed, it needs to be signed with the FSA ID created at the beginning of the process. If the student is dependent and the parent’s information is included, the parent needs to provide his FSA ID, which also serves as a legal signature. Once submitted, a confirmation page will pop up and should be printed out for the student’s records. And if an e-mail address was provided, a confirmation will automatically be sent.

Step 10Watch for Your Student Aid Report

A summary of the information submitted in the FAFSA is compiled into the Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR indicates the official expected family contribution (EFC) and helps providers determine what financial aid or student loan amounts the student qualifies for. It is sent via postal mail or e-mailed (depending on the mode submitted) to the address provided in the application. Review the SAR to ensure accuracy and for messages regarding the application, including any missing or incorrect information. It is up to the student to resolve any questions or issues the U.S. Department of Education has with the application. Any problems will need to be addressed as quickly as possible to ensure prompt correction.

The SAR information is shared with the colleges or career schools the student had listed on the application. The financial aid office at the school uses the information to determine how much federal aid might be given to the student at that school. If the school has its own financial aid program, it might use the student’s FAFSA information to determine eligibility for that aid as well.

Additional Resources

Apply for a federal student ID:

https://fsaid.ed.gov/npas

Start a FAFSA application:

http://www.fafsa.gov

Automated IRS System Helps College-Bound Students with Financial Aid Application Process:

http://www.irs.gov/uac/Automated-IRS-System-Helps-College-Bound-Students-with-Financial-Aid-Application-Process

6 Steps to Filling out the FAFSA, from the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education:

http://blog.ed.gov/2014/01/6-steps-to-filling-out-the-fafsa/

Fill Out Your FAFSA, Get Help Paying for College, from the White House blog:

https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/02/06/fill-out-your-fafsa-get-help-paying-college

Maximizing Your Aid Eligibility:

http://www.finaid.org/fafsa/maximize.phtml