The key to filling out the FAFSA is to be prepared. How do you prepare for a long, detailed form like the FAFSA? You gather all the personal identification information and financial documents the FAFSA will ask you for and you apply for a FAFSA P.I.N. so you can fill out your official FAFSA online (FAFSA-on-the-Web).
Here’s a step-by-step explanation of how to do the FAFSA. (For a few important FAFSA Facts first, see EducationGrant’s FAFSA page).
Before We Start: Understanding FAFSA Application Periods
Each FAFSA application period runs from January 1st of any given year to June 30th of the following year. This 18-month period provides financial aid coverage for the traditional September–to–May school year and a short summer school session at either end.
For example, as of January 2010:
- If the education program you want to enroll in starts between now and June 30th, 2010, fill out the 2009-2010 FAFSA.
- If the education program you want to enroll in starts between July 1st, 2010 and June 30th, 2011, fill out the 2010-2011 FAFSA.
Key to Filling Out the FAFSA: A Step-By-Step Plan
Step 1: Collect the documents you’ll need for the FAFSA and use them to do the Practice Worksheet
Required personal identification information and financial documents:
- Your Social Security Number (SSN)—or your alien registration number if you’re not a U.S. citizen
- SSN of your parent(s) if you meet the FAFSA criteria for a Dependent Student
- Your driver’s license if you have one
- Your most recent bank statements
- Your W-2 Forms and other records of money earned
- Your Federal Income Tax Return (and your spouse’s, if you are married): IRS Form 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, foreign tax return, or tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia or Palau
- Your parents’ Federal Income Tax Return, if you meet the FAFSA criteria for a dependent student
- Records of your untaxed income such as Social Security, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, welfare, or veterans’ benefits
- Your most recent business and investment mortgage information, business and farm records, and records of stocks, bonds, and other investments
Step 2: Get a PIN for FAFSA-on-the-Web OR download a paper application
The Department of Education strongly recommends that you use FAFSA-on-the-Web. Filing online is shorter, easier, and faster, and you get an answer back more quickly, too. (Read more about FAFSA-on-the-Web in Step 3.)
FAFSA-On-the-Web (FAFSA Online)
- Apply for your PIN online at www.pin.ed.gov.
- Your PIN allows you to “sign” your Online FAFSA, and to access your FAFSA file every year that you apply.
- Apply for your PIN ASAP because processing your request will take at least 2-5 business days.
- Your parent(s) must have a PIN too if you meet the FAFSA definition of a Dependent Student
- Providing an email address will speed up the PIN process.
Downloadable Paper FAFSA to Submit by Mail
- Download a PDF copy of the FAFSA from the Student Aid Website or call the Federal Student Aid Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID.
- Check the federal school code page to find the code for each school you plan to apply to.
- Throughout January and February 2010, volunteers across the country are holding events where they are providing in-person help to students filling out the FAFSA. If you could use some help, see if there is a FAFSA event in your area.
Step 3: Set aside some time to do the FAFSA
Block out a couple of hours on your calendar to sit down and just get the FAFSA done. The Department of Education recommends using FAFSA-on-the-Web for several reasons:
- Online instructions are provided for each question and live online help with a customer service representative is available if you get really stuck.
- FAFSA-on-the-Web is designed to find mistakes and prompt you to correct them.
- You can get the federal school code while you’re right there in the form.
- You can fill out all the questions at once or save your application for later changes and updates. This is a great feature for submitting all the information you have other than your tax return. You have 45 days from when you first submit information, or until the application deadline passes.
- Once you click “Submit My FAFSA Now” your information is immediately sent to the Department of Education.
- Your application is processed more quickly.
Tips from FAFSA Experts
- Do a dry run. Print out a FAFSA Practice Worksheet and fill in as much of the information as you can. This way you’ll have all your data in one place and can easily transfer it to your official FAFSA-on-the-Web.
- About taxes. You can do your FAFSA-on-the-Web before filing your tax return. Estimate your tax information on your FAFSA, then submit a FAFSA follow-up with any corrections after you’ve completed your tax return. (You have 45 days.)
- Dependency status. If the FAFSA defines you as a Dependent Student but you have no contact with either parent, make an appointment with a financial aid officer at your school. The financial aid administrator will work with you to determine if you qualify for Independency status in spite of meeting the Dependent Student criteria, and then will submit your FAFSA-on-the-Web with a Dependency Override. Another option is to submit the FAFSA-on-the-Web without parent information, which will qualify you only for an unsubsidized student loan. In this case, you will get an incomplete Student Aid Report (SAR), and if the financial aid office of the school you want to attend agrees to give you Independency status later on, they can do the dependency override then.
Ok, it’s a lot— but it isn’t that different from doing your taxes, another process that benefits from having all your ducks in a row before you begin. For the 2007–2008 academic year, the federal government provided over $14 billion in Pell Grants to more than 5.4 million undergraduate students. Start collecting all your documents as soon as you finish reading this post. The key to filling out the FAFSA is just a little preparation.