You may be surprised to learn that the Federal Pell Grant application process doesn’t start with a Pell Grant application – it starts with the FAFSA. The FAFSA determines your eligibility for a number of different federal, state, and school financial aid awards, including Pell Grants. Because the lion’s share of federal money goes to the early applicants (and because states and schools make financial aid decisions very early in the year), you would be smart to submit your FAFSA in February.

Your Pell Grant application and your FAFSA are one and the same. Once you’ve submitted your FAFSA, it will take a few weeks for it to be processed, while the U.S. Department of Education calculates your financial aid eligibility and Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Pell Grants are need-based, so if your EFC falls below a certain number, you’ll be automatically eligible for a Pell (assuming you meet all other eligibility requirements). This is how your FAFSA became your Pell Grant application.

Once your FAFSA is reviewed, the Education Department will send you a Student Aid Report (SAR) telling you what kind of financial aid you qualify for, and how much. If you qualify for a Pell Grant, it will be documented in your SAR. The report will also give you detailed instructions on how claim your Pell Grant, although typically, you don’t have do anything. The Pell Grant money is usually sent directly to your school, which will apply it to your tuition. If there is money left over, the instructions in your SAR will explain how to claim it from your school.

Overall, the Pell Grant application process is pretty easy…as long as you submit a FAFSA! (Thousands of qualifying students don’t – but that leaves more money for you.)  See the Pell Grant page for more information and detailed eligibility requirements.