Answering Common Questions About the FAFSA

Some higher education institutions require you to fill out multiple financial aid applications, but they all require at least one -- the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is used to determine how much federal aid you'll receive in the form of loans, grants, and work-study.

To receive federal financial aid, you have to complete the application every year you're in school, so it's smart to make sure you understand the FAFSA the very first time you fill it out. To help you wrap your head around the process, here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the FAFSA.

What Is The FAFSA?

The FAFSA is an online form that you must submit every year you want to be considered for financial aid. Your FAFSA information helps the government calculate how much aid you're eligible to receive for school, and how much they expect you and your family to contribute -- also known as your expected family contribution (EFC).

What Information Do I Need?

To ensure that your FAFSA application process goes smoothly, gather the following information and documents before you start filling out the form:

  • Your FSA ID: Your ID allows you to sign your application electronically. If this is your first time filling out the FAFSA, you can create your FSA ID when you log in to the FAFSA website. If you filled out the FAFSA before May 2015, you used an FSA Personal Identification Number (PIN) to access your account instead of an ID. To complete the FAFSA for the next academic year, you will need an FSA ID. Note: One of your parents will also have to obtain an ID if you are an undergraduate dependent student.
  • Financial aid deadlines: Make a list of the financial aid deadlines for each school you've applied to or plan on applying to. You can only include 10 schools at a time on the FAFSA, so list your first choice in the first spot on the form. Then, list the others in order of their financial aid deadlines (from earliest to latest). You should also note the deadlines for your state and the state that the schools you are applying to are in.
  • Income documentation: Dependent students will need their parents' federal tax returns (1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ) and W-2 forms if they worked the previous year. If their income comes from another source (like Social Security disability or welfare), you need to know their benefits for the previous year. If you worked the previous year, you need to report the income from your W-2 as well -- even if you were not required to file taxes. If you haven't filed your 2015 taxes yet, that's ok - you can use estimated information to file the FAFSA. That may increase your chances to be selected for FAFSA Verification (more on that below), but it's better to get the FAFSA in as soon as possible after January 1, since some aid is awarded first-come, first-serve.
  • Marital information: Dependent students whose parent(s) is married, divorced, separated, or widowed need to report the month and year that status occurred; this includes same-sex parents. If your parent(s) are divorced, separated, or widowed, report only the information about the parent you live with. If you are adopted, your adoptive parents are considered your parents. Likewise, if the biological parent you live with has re-married, your stepparent (including a legally married same-sex stepparent) is considered a parent, so you won't include your biological parent who you don't live with.

Am I Ready To Begin Yet?

Yup! Navigate to the official FAFSA website: fafsa.ed.gov. Don't confuse this with fasfa.com, which charges you for help.

If this is your first time visiting the site, click on "Start a new FAFSA." From there, the site will guide you step by step through the form.

Be sure to save your progress before logging out. If you make a mistake or can't complete the application in one sitting, you can use your username and password to return to your application later.

When Is My FAFSA Due?

The FAFSA for a school year becomes available on January 1. So, for students attending school from July 2015 to June 2016, the application went online January 1, 2015. If you're attending school from July 2016 to June 2017, that application is now available as well.

While you can apply for federal financial aid almost until the very end of the academic year, most schools have specific deadlines for institutional aid, which may be limited and available on a first come, first served basis. Ask each school you apply to about their priority filing deadline -- and definitely don't wait until the last minute to meet it!

How Does The FAFSA Calculate My Financial Aid?

Once you submit your FAFSA, a federal processor determines your estimated family contribution (EFC) with a formula based on your family's income, present assets, and size. They send these results -- known as your student aid report (SAR) -- to the financial aid offices of your chosen schools.

Financial aid officers at these schools determine your "financial need" by subtracting your EFC from the cost of attendance. They look to fill this need (at least partially) by awarding you grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans that you're eligible to receive. Awards vary from school to school, depending on the resources they have to offer.

What Is FAFSA Verification?

Verification is a secondary part of the FAFSA process that confirms certain information on your application. Don't worry if your school selects you for verification -- it doesn't mean you've done anything wrong. In fact, schools select about 1/3 of students for verification; here are some of reasons why:
  • You were chosen at random.
  • Your FAFSA contains estimated information.
  • Your FAFSA was incomplete.
  • Inconsistencies were found in the information on your FAFSA.

To complete the process, you will likely need to provide documentation to validate certain info on your FAFSA. Ask your school's financial aid office what they specifically need from you.

Your school will notify you if they've selected you. Contact your school's financial aid office if you have questions. You cannot receive your financial aid until you complete the verification process--which can take up to 45 days--so it's important to act quickly. After you provide the new documentation, the financial aid office at your college will compare it to what you reported on the FAFSA and adjust your aid accordingly.

Where Can I Find More Information?

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) created the FAFSA4caster to give you an idea of what's in store for you from a numbers standpoint. You can also check out this article (free sign-up required) to find answers to some tricky questions on the FAFSA that you might run into.

SALT® is a free and unbiased nonprofit-backed financial education program dedicated to giving students, alumni and families the money knowledge they need for college and beyond.