Nadyja Von Ebers

The Ultimate Guide to Completing Your FAFSA Application

If you’re in the process of applying to college, you may have heard your guidance counselors, peers, or parents talking about the FAFSA application. But what is FAFSA?

The very short answer is that FAFSA is the central way that you acquire financial aid to cover the cost of college expenses. Did you know that the Department of Education gives out roughly 46 billion dollars in federal aid each year? You want to fill out a FAFSA because that’s how you get in on some of that money!

We’ll tell you about FAFSA deadlines, how to complete a FAFSA application, and everything else you need to know to apply for and receive the financial aid that you’re entitled to!

Ultimate Guide to FAFSA Application - magoosh

Table of Contents

What is FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid,” and it is how you can attain financial aid from the United States Government to help cover your college expenses.

Now, while FAFSA is technically an application for federal aid, it is also required for determining your eligibility for aid from the state and from individual colleges in the form of grants, loans, and work-study programs.

Here’s a quick step-by-step process for how FAFSA works:

  • You will create a FAFSA on the Web application. To re-access your application quickly and efficiently, you can create an FSA ID. You can also download and use this FAFSA form.
  • The U.S. Department of Education will calculate your EFC, or “expected family contribution,” to find out how much you and your family can afford to pay for college for the following school year. Your EFC is based on information that you or your parents will be required to provide on the FAFSA application (more on this shortly).
  • The higher your EFC, the less money you’ll be entitled to in the form of federal aid; conversely, the lower your EFC, the more money you’ll qualify for.

Note that you are required to apply for FAFSA every year, for the following academic year, for as many years as you are a student.

Go back to the top of our ultimate guide to the FAFSA application.

FAFSA Deadline 2018-2019

FAFSA officially opened for applications for the 2018-2019 school year in October 2017.

Online applications for Federal aid must be submitted by midnight Central Standard Time on June 30, 2019. Corrections and updates to your application must be submitted by midnight Central Standard Time on September 14, 2019.

Every state has a different deadline for state-based financial aid, and this is a super handy resource detailing all of the 2018-2019 FAFSA deadlines by individual state. Or you can use this convenient FAFSA deadline calculator to determine your deadlines for each academic year in your state of legal residence.

Keep in mind that every college has its own set of deadlines, so check with every college you are applying to about their FAFSA deadline so you don’t miss the submission window!

Go back to the top of our ultimate guide to the FAFSA application.

What Information do I Need to Complete a FAFSA Application?

Here is a short and sweet list of the necessary information for filling out a FAFSA if you are filing as an independent. This includes:

  • Your Social Security Number
  • Your Alien Registration Number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
  • Your federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned (note: tax information for FAFSA is now taken from the year-before-last’s tax return, not last year’s)
  • Bank statements, investment records, and records of untaxed income (if necessary)
  • An FSA ID to sign electronically

More than likely, though, especially if you’re still in high school right now, your parents can claim you as an dependent. This means they will have to fill out a FAFSA application for you, providing in-depth information on their financial earnings (in other words, sharing their Social Security Number and the other information listed above).

Resources for Parents

Your parents can use the IRS retrieval tool to conveniently upload their tax return information into your FAFSA form. Note that this tool was taken down temporarily in March 2017 to prevent fraudulent activity. While it operates a little differently than it did in the past, it’s still a viable tool, and now safer to use than previously!

This is also a great resource on the updated protocol for submitting tax information to FAFSA if you’d like more information on this front.

Here is a list of questions to ask yourself to determine if you’re a dependent and will therefore need your parents’ information to complete the form.

It’s also important to note that a parent, in the case of FAFSA, is:

  • A biological or adoptive parent
  • A legal guardian that the state has determined to be a parent on your birth certificate
  • Note that foster parents, legal guardians, grandparents, older siblings, widowed step-parents, or aunts/uncles are not considered parents for the purpose of FAFSA unless they have legally adopted you.

Now, as we all know, not all families look exactly the same, and parental relationships vary from household to household.

This is a great infographic of who should fill out a FAFSA form for you, but here’s whose information to provide on a FAFSA, based on marital status:*

Parent’s Marital Status Provide Information For:
Never Married The parent that you lived with most during the last 12 months. If you did not live with one parent more than the other, provide information about the parent who provided more financial support during the last 12 months, or during the most recent year that you actually received support from a parent.
Both legal parents unmarried but currently living together Both of your legal parents

Both of your parents
Remarried (after being widowed or divorced) Parent and Stepparent
Divorced or Separated The parent that you lived with most during the last 12 months. If you did not live with one parent more than the other, provide information about the parent who provided more financial support during the last 12 months, or during the most recent year that you actually received support from a parent.
Widowed Your parent

(*The following information is reproduced from FAFSA’s Who’s Considered A Parent? Page and can be found there as well.)

One last noteworthy point is that even if you are a dependent, you must claim any financial gains you incurred the previous year, such as gifts, contest money, etc.

Go back to the top of our ultimate guide to the FAFSA application.

What Happens After I File a FAFSA Application?

Two major things happen after you file a FAFSA:

#1 You will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR).

If you’ve provided an email address, you will receive your SAR within 3-5 days. Otherwise, you will receive it in the mail within 7-10 days. Your SAR will include all of the information that you or a parent has entered as well as your EFC (“expected family contribution” if you recall from above). If any information is missing, your EFC will not be calculated and you will be able to add or change information as necessary.

#2 You will receive financial aid award letters

As you begin receiving acceptance letters from colleges you’ve applied to (woo hoo!), you will also begin receiving financial aid award letters; in fact, sometimes they even come with your acceptance letters.

Your financial aid award letters will use the information from your FAFSA application to come up with an amount of money that they are willing and able to provide you. Each school will have its own unique “financial aid package” that breaks down the aid you receive. Aid may come in several forms including but not limited to:

  • Grants – Sums of money that are typically strictly need-based, and do not have to be repaid.
  • Scholarships – Also sums of money that do not need to be repaid, but are often merit-based or both need and merit based.
  • Government loans – Low interest loans with various payment plan options.

This is a great overview of every type of financial aid offered through FAFSA.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that if you apply to a college early-action or early decision, your financial package may not arrive until all students have applied by the regular deadline.

Go back to the top of our ultimate guide to the FAFSA application.


Who Can Apply for FAFSA?

Here is a quick fact sheet on eligibility for receiving financial aid via FAFSA, but please note that you must be a United States citizen with a valid Social Security Number, or be an eligible non-citizen of the United States. Typically, the following individuals are considered eligible non-citizens:

  • US permanent residents (holding a Permanent Resident Card, formally referred to as a “Green Card”)
  • Conditional permanent residents (I-551C)

If you are currently an undocumented immigrant, there are still many types of financial aid you can apply for, and the College Board’s Repository of Resources for Undocumented Students is a great starting point.

Why Do So Many Students Miss Out on FAFSA?

The truth is that many students don’t immediately believe that they will qualify for financial aid, but nearly all students do, in varying quantities.

Some students are also simply not made aware of the FAFSA application and then miss the deadline to apply for aid.

Sometimes students who are English Language Learners (ELL) or whose parents are ELL have a hard time understanding all of the information being asked on the FAFSA form. If this is the case, talk to your high school guidance counselor as soon as possible to discuss translation options and assistance.

According to several recent studies, students leave literal billions of dollars on the table by not applying for FAFSA, which is incredibly unfortunate!

The moral is, everyone should submit a FAFSA application, bottom line. You may be entitled to significantly more money than you assume, and no matter what, every bit helps!

Is FAFSA Mandatory?

Nope, FAFSA is not mandatory, but it’s the gatekeeper for all types of financial aid, so if you’re looking for financial assistance of any variety, you’ll need to fill one out!

Is FAFSA Free?

Indeed it is! Hence the name, “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” That said, you will no doubt have other application fees as you apply to college, so be mindful of these as they come up.

Does FAFSA Help You Get Free Money or a Loan?

One of the main goals of FAFSA is to get you money that you do not need to pay back—in other words, grants and loans.

However, each one of the colleges you apply to will assemble their own financial aid package, some of which will include loans, which must be repaid per the specific terms of each individual type of loan.

Is FAFSA The Only Way to Receive Financial Aid?

FAFSA is the quickest way to access most types of financial aid out there, but it isn’t the only way or resource.

At the bottom of the types of financial aid page, FAFSA lists some of the other ways students can get financial assistance, including tax credits, military aid, state and local scholarships, etc.

Remember that there are many options out there for paying for college, and you can use the College Scholarship Service (CSS) to help you apply for all kinds of scholarships from over 400 participating colleges.

Go back to the top of our ultimate guide to the FAFSA application.

Good Luck and Happy Applying!

We know that applying to colleges is stressful in its own right, and the FAFSA application can seem really intimidating.

But if you have all the information (starting with the answer to, “What is FAFSA?”) and start the process early, you’ll be set! And again, you may be surprised how helpful doing so is to you in the applying to and selecting a college!

Remember that if you need help or more information, see your high school guidance counselor at your earliest convenience. You can also utilize the Coalition for College Access and its range of free tools and resources for college planning if you feel you need more assistance.

Are there any other questions or concerns you have about FAFSA? If so, comment below and let us know!


  • Nadyja Von Ebers

    Nadyja von Ebers is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. Nadyja holds an MA in English from DePaul University and has taught English and at the high school and college levels for twelve years. She has a decade of experience teaching preparation for the AP exams, the SAT, and the ACT, among other tests. Additionally, Nadyja has worked as an academic advisor at college level and considers herself an expert in all things related to college-prep. She’s applied her college expertise to posts such as UCLA Admissions: The SAT Scores, ACT Scores, and GPA You Need to Get in and A Family Guide to College Admissions. Nadyja loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing for pleasure and loves spending time in or near the ocean. You can connect with her on LinkedIn!

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