How to Apply for FAFSA in 7 Steps

jgimm | Tue Nov 26, 2019

The reality of college is that it’s not easy to pay for. While the price tag may look outrageous, you have to remember two things: first, that you’re getting a lot for your money and if you know what you’re doing, you can make that money back. And second, that the high price of higher education is no secret. That’s why in addition to college applications, there’s the FAFSA.

You may have heard this word already, and if not, now is the first time of many. What does this mysterious term mean, and why does it matter so much? Is it a name? A place? The secret password to enter college?

Actually, that last one is pretty close. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. You read that correctly—it’s a student financial aid form you fill out to receive free money from the federal government to help pay for college. Got your attention now?

Here’s a helpful guide on how and more importantly, when to apply for FAFSA. By the end, you will have learned not to fear the FAFSA, but to use it so you can get into the college of your dreams. FAFSA is your friend and, if you're eligible, it’s your ticket to student aid, loans, and other funds.

1. Chart your destination

You will need to share the results of your FAFSA form with the schools you want to go to, so before you do anything else, figure out which schools those are. Check out our guide on Everything You Need to Know About Applying to College for help on choosing a school.

Part of the form will be getting each college or university’s FAFSA school code. Once you have them, don’t be shy. You can (and should) include every school you’re considering. You can add up to 10 at a time, and there’s no penalty for including additional schools where you don’t end up applying. Colleges and universities won’t be informed of who else you are including in your student aid request. If you want to add more than 10 schools, you just call the Federal Student Aid (FSA) Information Center for help.

2. Follow the money

The FAFSA is for need-based financial aid, so it requires a whole lot of financial information. It’s best to track it all down first so you’re not stuck while you’re working on the form. Here’s what you (and your parents) will need:

  • A Social Security number
  • An Alien Registration number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
  • Federal income tax returns, W-2s, anything else indicating what money you’ve earned (If you or your parents have filed your taxes, the new IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) makes this a lot easier, as you can link up your tax returns with the form.)
  • Bank statements and records of any investments
  • Records of any untaxed income

3. Get with the program

You and your parents will need to create FSA IDs so you can complete the form. Be sure to do this ahead of time.

You and your parents each have to have your own FSA ID unless you are not a dependent. Your parents can’t create yours for you (But don’t worry, you’re free to help them with theirs). You will be asked if you want to give an email address and mobile phone number, which are both optional. If you do give them, make sure you and your parents have different emails and phone numbers on your accounts.

Be sure not to share your FSA ID with anyone, even your parents, and keep it safe where you can find it. You’ll need it to renew your FAFSA each additional year.

Go to StudentAid.gov/fsaid to create your FSA ID.

4. Use the right tool for the job

Be sure you are selecting the FAFSA for the correct year:

If you plan on starting college between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021, file the 2020-2021 FAFSA using your 2018 tax return information. That form has been available since October 1, 2019, so you should get to it as soon as possible.

If you plan on starting college between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022, file the 2021-2022 FAFSA using your 2019 tax information. That form will be available from October 1, 2020 to June 30, 2022.

Knowing when to apply for college is important, but there are also application deadlines for the FAFSA. Remember: Federal student aid is mostly given out on a first-come, first-served basis, so the quicker you apply the better. In Illinois, your FAFSA deadline also helps determine your eligibility for Illinois Student Assistance Commission programs. North Central College recommends you fill out your FAFSA application by December 31.

5. Dive in, but carefully

The first part of the FAFSA form is easy. Go to fafsa.gov and click “Start Here.”

The form will let you choose whether you are the student or if your parent or preparer is filling out the form (Or you if you’re a student from a Freely Associated State).

You’ll have the option to create a save key, which is a temporary password you can use to save your progress and come back later or if you and your parents want to switch off working on the form.

Feel free to do this, but make sure you and your parents are not working on the form at the same time on different computers. More than one login at a time can lead to losing your progress.

Read all the directions over closely, and as many times as you need if you can’t understand them. You’ll see blue question mark icons you can click if you ever need help.

6. Cover all the bases

The form has seven sections you’ll need to finish:

  • Student demographics: all your information, including name, social security number, birth date, mailing address, email address, gender, phone number, driver’s license number (if you have one), whether you’re married or not, whether you’re a U.S. citizen or not, and whether you are willing to do work-study jobs
  • School selection: here’s where you tell them which colleges you’re thinking about as well as the name and location of your high school
  • Dependency status: put down any children or dependents you have and how many people are in your household; determine whether you are independent or if your parents are required to include their information
  • Parent demographics: mostly the same stuff they asked about you, including who lives with your parents (If you are independent, you don’t have to fill out this section. And if you need help deciding who counts as a parent and what should be included here, FSA has a guide online.)—don’t forget who is Parent 1 and who is Parent 2!
  • Financial information: this is the part where you and your parents can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool if possible, or otherwise you can put information from your W-2s in manually
  • Sign and submit: both you and your parents need to sign, and they’ll have to remember who they put down as Parent 1 and Parent 2
  • Confirmation

7. The Hardest Part

Congratulations, your application is done and pending! Now you just have to wait to receive your results.

Once you click “Submit,” your form should be processed in three to five days, or seven to 10 days if you fill out the financial aid application on paper.

After your FAFSA application is processed, you and the schools listed will get a copy of your Student Aid Report, including your Expected Family Contribution and your eligibility for Pell Grants.

At North Central College, we love the FAFSA and we’re all about getting you acquainted. For more information on applying for financial aid, including what aid North Central College offers and our FAFSA school code number (001734), go to northcentralcollege.edu/aid-costs/applying-aid.