A Guide to the FAFSA

College is getting more expensive every year, but fewer parents are paying for their children’s college education. Since it doesn’t usually make sense to skip college, many students are faced with the seemingly impossible task of paying for college themselves – that’s where the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) comes in. The FAFSA is your gateway to all sorts of student aid. In fact, it’s the only way to get your share of the $170 billion that the government forks out annually.

The average difference in lifetime wages between someone with a college degree and someone with only a high school degree is $1 million, according to a recent study published by the University of Georgetown. While this is great news for students who have already figured out their college plans, it may create anxiety for students worried about how to pay for college. Luckily, the government has streamlined the process of qualifying for college student aid through a form known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

In addition to opening up the possibility of federal grants, loans, and work-study programs, the FAFSA is also used by each state to determine if you are eligible for certain state grants and scholarships. Since the government views paying for college as your family’s responsibility, the primary purpose of the FAFSA is to determine your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). This number is based primarily on your finances and family situation if you are an independent student. But if you are a dependent student, the FAFSA also takes your parent’s finances and family situation into account. Once you’ve submitted your FAFSA and your EFC has been determined, the Student Aid department of the school that you choose to attend will award you the aid.

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If you’re wondering whether it’s worth your time to fill out the FAFSA, be assured that it is. For starters, it’s free, and most students can fill it out in about 30 min if they gather all the information they need ahead of time.

Here are the top three reasons why you absolutely should complete the FAFSA:

  • The potential for free money: Filling out the FAFSA determines whether you are eligible for Federal Grants. Grants are basically free money for your college education – you won’t have to repay them.
  • Access to federal loans: Federal loans are usually vastly superior to private loans since they have more repayment options and are even subsidized for some students (meaning the government pays the interest while you are in college).
  • Most students get aid: More than 85% of first-time college attendees get some kind of student aid from the government.

Filling out the FAFSA is a relatively easy process as long as you are properly prepared. That’s why we created this guide – to explain each step necessary to complete the FAFSA online, to provide clarity and explanations for specific questions that may be unclear or difficult to answer, and to provide all the resources students need to make this process as easy as possible.

In this article

    What is FAFSA?

    At its core, the FAFSA is nothing more than a form you fill out that dictates how much college aid you qualify for. Options for university aid provided through the FAFSA process can come from four sources — the federal government, local state governments, private scholarship offers and/or the college or university you’re planning on attending.

    FAFSA calculates how much money the agency believes you and your family can pay for college and how much your expected cost of attending a particular college or university may be. These two terms are reported on your Student Aid Report (SAR) and are known as your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and Cost of Attendance (COA), respectively.

    What you need to know before you can file a FAFSA

    Not everyone can use the FAFSA

    While filing for FAFSA student aid only involves one form, it’s been regarded by many as a complex process. That being said, this FAFSA guide should help to break down any confusion and simplify the overall process. By educating yourself prior to filing, you can alleviate a lot of unnecessary headaches and bottlenecks in the process.

    General qualifications

    In general, anyone can fill out a FAFSA form to see if they qualify for funding. While not everyone will receive funding offers, the form is open to most prospective and current students to find out more information.

    Eligibility

    There are some eligibility limitations for students, specifically when it comes to federal funding. Students not sure they are eligible should fill out the eligibility worksheet for better clarification.

    When you file matters

    Every year there are filing deadlines for the FAFSA form. The federal government has its own deadline, and particular universities and colleges will, as well. Generally, the federal deadline is the end of June. For states and colleges, the deadline often is earlier in the year.

    Whether you’re a dependent

    Depending on your family and financial situation, you have the option of filling out the FAFSA on your own or with your parents. If you file as a dependent, you will need to include at least one of your parents in the filing process. Bear in mind that the outlined documents below will be needed from your parents if you file with them, or from your spouse if you are married and filing independently.

    Gathering documents ahead of time

    Before starting the FAFSA, gather the required documents to streamline the process. A full list of the necessary documents is kept up to date on the studenaid.gov website.

    Independent Students

    • Driver’s license or state ID
    • Social Security number
    • Current bank statements
    • Record for untaxed income for previous year
    • Previous year W-2 forms*
    • Previous year federal income tax return

    Dependent Students

    • Driver’s license or state ID
    • Social Security number
    • Current bank statements
    • Previous year W-2 forms*
    • Previous year federal income tax return
    • Parent’s Social Security number
    • Parent’s current bank statements
    • Parent’s record of untaxed income for previous year
    • Parent’s investment and business records
    • Parent’s previous year W-2 Forms*
    • Parent’s previous year federal income tax return

    *The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) can be used by you and your parents to fill out 2015 income data in place of tax returns.

    Noncitizen Independent Students

    • Your Alien Registration Number
    • Driver’s license or state ID
    • Your Current Bank Statements
    • Previous year IRS W-2 information
    • Previous year U.S. federal tax returns and previous year foreign tax return
    • Record for untaxed income for previous year

    Noncitizen Dependent Students

    • Your Alien Registration Number
    • Driver’s license or state ID
    • Your Current Bank Statements
    • Previous year IRS W-2 information
    • Previous year U.S. federal tax returns and previous year foreign tax return
    • Record for untaxed income for previous year
    • Parent’s previous year federal income tax return
    • Parent’s current bank statements
    • Parent’s record of untaxed income for previous year
    • Parent’s investment and business records
    • Parent’s previous year W-2 Forms*
    • Parent’s previous year federal income tax return

    Step-by-step guide to filling out the FAFSA online

    The easiest way to work through FAFSA is to take the process step by step. By doing so, you ensure accurate completion, no missed factors and the best chance to gain access to the most college student aid. FAFSA provides over $120 billion in student college aid every year, so it’s important to access your share.

    • Gather the necessary documents — Ensuring success with the FAFSA process starts by collecting all of the necessary documentation upfront.
    • Obtain an FSA ID — An FSA ID is a username and password combination that allows you to access your information on certain U.S. Department of Education websites. While you can obtain this during the FAFSA application process, it’s easier to get ahead of time. If you’re filing with your parents, they will need one as well.
    • Begin filling out the FAFSA form — Once you’ve collected your documents and an FSA ID, begin filling out your forms. If you’re filing as a dependent, it may be best to complete the forms alongside your parent(s).
    • Complete the student demographics section — If this is your first time filling out the FAFSA student aid form, you’ll need to include demographic information about yourself. Renewal filers will be able to select the option of using the information filed on past FAFSA requests.
    • Determine and list the schools you may want to attend — Include a list of all of the schools that you may be interested in attending, even if you haven’t applied or are unsure if you’ll get accepted. There are no penalties or drawbacks to including schools that you don’t end up attending or even applying to. You don’t even need to go back and remove schools once you know you won’t be going there.
    • Answer question on dependency — For students not sure whether they need to file as a dependent of their parents, this section of the form will help determine that. Be aware that student financial aid dependency is determined differently than how the IRS or how you may determine it.
    • Complete the parent demographics section — Based on the determinations of the previous step, you may need to get information about your parents to include on the form.
    • Input your financial information — The last step of the process is including your financial information. Thanks to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), you should be able to import your tax information with just a few clicks. You will need to check that you already completed your taxes during the parent demographics section.
    • Sign and submit the FAFSA form — The last step of the process is signing your FAFSA form with your FSA ID and submitting it for review. If the form required you to file as a dependent, both you and your parent would need to sign with your FSA IDs.

    Student demographic information

    This section is where you will enter your basic personal information. Certain aspects (like your date of birth) will be used to determine whether you can file as an independent student.

    • Name and Social Security number: Make sure your name matches your social security card – be sure not to enter a nickname. If you are from the Freely Associated States (the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, or the Federated States of Micronesia) and you don’t have a Social Security Number, enter 666 for the first three digits (the remaining digits will be assigned when your FAFSA is processed.
    • Gender: Enter the gender listed on your birth certificate – even if you identify as another gender. If you are a male between the ages of 18 and 25, you will be required to register with the Selective Service to receive financial aid, if you haven’t already.
    • Address: When entering your permanent address, make sure it’s not the mailing address of your on-campus housing. For dependent students, this will usually be your parent’s address. Your state of residence will most likely be the same state that you listed in your permanent address. If you haven’t been a legal resident of your home state for more than five years, additional information may be required to verify your state of residence, which will determine the state you are eligible to receive grants or scholarships from (it’s not necessarily the state in which your school is located).

    Student eligibility

    The questions in this section are used to determine whether you are eligible for Federal Student Aid and if you qualify as an independent student.

    Citizenship

    If you are a citizen or U.S. National, select “U.S. Citizen.” If you are one of the following, select “eligible noncitizen:”

    • A permanent resident (if you have a green card)
    • An I-94 Visa Holder with a designation that reads: “Refugee,” “Asylum Granted,” “Cuban-Entrant,” or “Conditional Entrant” (if issued before April 1, 1980)
    • A T-Visa holder
    • A resident of the Republic of Palau (PW), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (MH), or the Federated States of Micronesia (FM)

    If you have one of the following documents, then you should select “neither citizen nor eligible noncitizen:”

    • F1 or F2 Student Visa
    • A J1 or J2 Exchange Visitor Visa
    • A G-Series Visa

    Work-study

    Work-study provides an opportunity for students with financial need to earn money toward their education expenses. Unless you know for sure that you aren’t interested in the work-study program, indicate that you are interested. Since you aren’t committing to anything at this time and you can always turn it down later, there’s really no downside to seeing whether you qualify and what it would look like for you to participate.

    Parent’s schooling

    This question only determines your eligibility for certain state scholarships – it doesn’t impact your Federal Student Aid at all. For the purposes of the FAFSA, a parent is either your birth parent or adoptive parent. Don’t include:

    • Stepparents
    • Grandparents
    • Legal guardians
    • Foster parents

    School selection: For those that aren’t currently enrolled, or haven’t yet made a final decision, make sure you include all the schools that you are interested in attending. It will save time if you include the college you end up enrolling in, rather than having to add the school later. A side benefit of adding more colleges (you can add up to 10) is that you can compare statistics like the cost of attendance and graduation rates to help make your decision.

    The order that you list the schools in does matter. Once you’ve added them all, you can change the way they are prioritized on the following screen. While this doesn’t affect your Federal Student Aid at all, states do use this information to help determine whether you qualify for specific grants or other aid.

    Dependency determination: This section is the final source of information used to determine whether you will be considered an independent or dependent student. This decision is important because, in most cases, students who are considered “independent” will receive more aid than those who are “dependent” since the income of the parents of independent students isn’t factored in.

    The questions in this section are determined by how you answered questions earlier in the application. For instance, if your birthdate in the first section was before 1994, then you automatically qualify for “independent status,” and you won’t have to answer most of the questions in this section.

    To find out whether you are going to be considered an independent or dependent student, answer the following questions. If you answer “no” to each you will be considered “dependent,” but if you answer “yes” to even one question, you are “independent.”

    Note: These questions are quoted directly from the Federal Student Aid’s website.

    1. Were you born before January 1, 1998?
    2. As of today, are you married? (Also answer “Yes” if you are separated but not divorced.)
    3. At the beginning of the 2021–22 school year, will you be working on a master’s or doctorate program (such as an M.A., M.B.A., M.D., J.D., Ph.D., Ed.D., graduate certificate, etc.)?
    4. Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training? (If you are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee, are you on active duty for other than state or training purposes?)
    5. Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?*
    6. Do you now have—or will you have—children who will receive more than half of their support from you between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022?
    7. Do you have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through June 30, 2022?
    8. At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a dependent or ward of the court?
    9. Has it been determined by a court in your state of legal residence that you are an emancipated minor or that someone other than your parent or stepparent has legal guardianship of you? (You also should answer “Yes” if you are now an adult but were in legal guardianship or were an emancipated minor immediately before you reached the age of being an adult in your state. Answer “No” if the court papers say “custody” rather than “guardianship.”)
    10. At any time on or after July 1, 2020, were you determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, as determined by (a) your high school or district homeless liaison, (b) the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or (c) the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program?**

    * Answer “No” (you are not a veteran) if you (1) have never engaged in active duty (including basic training) in the U.S. armed forces, (2) are currently a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) student or a cadet or midshipman at a service academy, (3) are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee activated only for state or training purposes, or (4) were engaged in active duty in the U.S. armed forces but released under dishonorable conditions. Also answer “No” if you are currently serving in the U.S. armed forces and will continue to serve through June 30, 2022.

    Answer “Yes” (you are a veteran) if you (1) have engaged in active duty (including basic training) in the U.S. armed forces or are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee who was called to active duty for other than state or training purposes, or were a cadet or midshipman at one of the service academies and (2) were released under a condition other than dishonorable. Also answer “Yes” if you are not a veteran now but will be one by June 30, 2022.

    **If you do not have a determination that you are homeless, but you believe you are an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, answer “No” to the FAFSA questions concerning being homeless. Then contact your financial aid office to explain your situation. “Homeless” means lacking fixed or regular housing. You may be homeless if you are living in shelters, parks, motels, hotels, cars, or temporarily living with someone else because you have nowhere else to go.

    Parent demographic information

    Note: Skip this section and proceed to the next section if you will be considered an independent student and your school doesn’t require all students to provide their parent’s financial information.

    This section requires basic personal information about the student’s parent(s). It is required for dependent students, or students who voluntarily elect to include their parent’s information.

    Who is considered your parent on the FAFSA: FAFSA defines a parent as “a biological or adoptive parent or a person determined by the state to be a parent (for example, if the parent is listed on the birth certificate).” Additionally, the following people aren’t considered to be a parent unless they have legally adopted you:

    • Grandparents
    • Foster Parents
    • Legal Guardians
    • Older Brothers and Sisters
    • Widowed Stepparents
    • Aunts and Uncles

    Here is where it gets a bit tricky. If your parents have divorced or separated, you will answer questions for the parent that has custody. Your custodial parent is the parent that you live with the majority of the time. If your parents have 50/50 custody, then it might be necessary to calculate the number of nights you have spent with each parent to make this determination.

    Important: If your custodial parent has remarried, then you must include your step parent’s personal and financial information – even if he or she refuses to contribute to your college education.

    Special circumstance: There are certain special circumstances that may allow you to submit your FAFSA without your parent’s information, even if you are determined to be “dependent.”

    Here are a few examples:

    • You left home because of an abusive family situation
    • You cannot contact your parents and are unable to locate them
    • Your parents are incarcerated
    • You are between the ages of 21 and 23 and are either homeless, or at risk of being homeless

    If one of the above examples (or similar circumstances) applies to you, you should select the option that indicates you have special circumstances that don’t allow you to provide your parent’s information. You will then be able to submit the FAFSA without filling in your parent’s information.

    If you go this route, your FAFSA will be submitted, but not fully processed – you immediately need to contact your school’s financial aid office. The staff there may ask for additional evidence to support your claims. The financial aid office will then make a final decision as to whether you can be considered to be an independent student and receive Federal Financial Aid without your parent’s information.

    Important: If you are unable to get your parent’s information due to special circumstances or you can’t secure their cooperation, don’t just guess – knowingly providing inaccurate information could have serious consequences.

    Filling out parent information: When it comes to filling out your parent’s information you have two options. The first option is to fill out the FAFSA together. This requires you both to be present at the same location – you fill out your part, and then your parents complete their part.

    The other option is to fill out the information from separate computers. This can be especially useful if you don’t currently live with your parents. Here’s how this works: you fill out your information, and then when you get to the section that asks for your parent’s info, you save and exit the application. Your parents then log in to the application using the “personal information option” on the login screen. They will also need to select the same application year and provide the save key that you created when you started the application. Your parents will then be able to input all the required information themselves. Once they finish their sections, they can save and exit the application.

    Parent marital status: There are five options to choose from when describing your parent’s marital status. Remember, this information is supposed to be accurate as of the day that you file the FAFSA. Also, enter their legal status as defined by the state in which they. For instance, if your state has “common law marriage,” then they could technically be married if they’ve lived together for a certain period of time.

    Here are the options to choose from:

    • Never married
    • Unmarried and both parents living together
    • Married or remarried
    • Divorced or separated
    • Widowed

    Household size

    You or your parents can use the tool that the FAFSA provides to calculate this number. Here’s how you can figure out your parent’s household size according to FAFSA:

    1. Enter the corresponding number for your parents. If they are divorced, separated, or widowed, that number would be “1.” If they are married or remarried, that number will be “2.” This will be auto-generated based on your response to the earlier question about their marital status.
    2. “1” will be entered for yourself.
    3. Enter the number of your parent’s other children that will receive at least 50% of their support from your parents during the school year for which you are applying if they can also answer “no” to every FAFSA dependency question.
    4. Enter the number of other people that live with your parents if your parents will continue to provide half of their support during the entire school year for which you are applying.

    Student and parent financial information

    Whether you are a dependent student, an independent student or the parent of a dependent student, you will have to fill out this section. If you are a dependent student and didn’t have a job in 2019, select “not going to file” on the first screen. You will enter a “0” in most of the fields.

    The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT)

    You can use the IRS DRT to pre-fill most of the required information in this section if you are eligible. It saves quite a bit of time and usually more accurate, so you should use it if you can.

    You are ineligible to use the DRT if:

    • You don’t have a valid Social Security Number
    • You haven’t filed taxes, or you filed recently (“recently” is three weeks previously for e-file, 11 weeks for paper filing)
    • You filed as “Married Filing Separately” or “Head of Household”
    • A 1040X was filed to correct the applicable tax return
    • You filed a Puerto Rican or foreign tax return

    To use the IRS DRT, you must have an FSA ID. If you selected “already completed” when asked about the filing status of your 2015 tax return, there will be an option to “link to the IRS” if you’re eligible. After that, simply follow the prompts and your tax information will be automatically pre-filled.

    Entering tax information: If you can’t or don’t want to use the IRS DRT, you will have to enter your tax information manually. If you’ve already filed a U.S. return, this should be a breeze. However, if you filed a foreign return or haven’t filed yet (and you had a job with taxable income in 2015), then this process could be a bit more challenging. If you haven’t filed yet, you will have to use the income estimator tool provided by FAFSA to calculate your income from 2015.

    If you filed your 2015 tax return online, you might be able to access the information from the tax program you used. The information also could be saved to your computer. For instance, if you used a program like “TurboTax” you should have been prompted to save a .pdf file to your computer that contains your entire return.

    For those who filed a foreign return (or had income that was taxable in 2015 by a foreign country), you must enter the applicable information in U.S. dollars. The exchange rate provided by the Federal Reserve can be used to convert the amounts.

    Marital status: For those who don’t have the same marital status that they had in 2015 may have a difficult time answering some of the tax questions. The following list explains how to navigate some of the common change-in-marital-status questions:

    • If you are married and filed separate returns for 2019: Use this guide to determine which type of tax return you should indicate that you filed
    • If you filed a joint return for 2019, but are no longer married: Subtract your former spouse’s tax return information (only answer FAFSA questions with your own information)
    • If you did not file a joint return for 2019, but you are now married: Add your spouse’s tax information from 2015 to yours (answer FAFSA questions with information about yourself and your spouse)
    • If you filed a joint return for 2019, but are now married to a different person: Subtract your former spouse’s income and information and add in your current spouse’s information (only answer FAFSA questions with information about yourself and your current spouse)

    Displaced workers

    You (or your spouse) may qualify as a displaced worker if you:

    • Are drawing unemployment benefits after being laid off or losing a job and you aren’t likely to return to their previous occupation*
    • Were laid off, or you received a layoff notice from your employer**
    • Were self-employed, but are now unemployed due to a natural disaster or poor economic conditions
    • Are married to an active-duty member of the armed forces, and are having difficulty finding employment or upgrading employment if you are underemployed
    • Are married to an active-duty member of the armed forces and you lost your job due to a permanent relocation caused by your spouse being assigned to a new duty station
    • Qualify as a “displaced homemaker”***

    *You also qualify if you used up your unemployment benefits, or you didn’t qualify for unemployment due to insufficient earnings or because your type work didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits under state law.

    **If you voluntarily resigned from your job, or you were fired with cause, you are not considered to be a displaced worker.

    ***You qualify as a displaced homemaker if you provided unpaid services for your family in the past (as a stay-at-home parent), you aren’t supported by your spouse any longer, and you are having difficulty finding employment or upgrading your employment if you are underemployed.

    If you indicate that you are a dislocated worker, you may be required to provide documentation to the financial aid administrator at your college.

    They could request information like:

    • A copy of the layoff notice
    • Unemployment compensation paperwork
    • A letter from your former employer stating that you are unlikely to be reinstated within the next 6 months

    Federal benefit programs: The purpose of these questions is to determine whether you qualify for special state scholarships or grants that may be available to those who are receiving certain benefits like Medicaid or SNAP, so answering them won’t reduce your potential Federal Student Aid. Check the appropriate box if either you or your spouse received any of the listed benefits during 2020 or 2021. Note: If you first filled out this section prior to the end of the listed year, and you then received benefits before December 31, you must return to the FAFSA and update your response.

    Additional financial information: The total from this subsection is deducted from your taxable income. Only include the taxable portion of any of these earnings.

    Untaxed income: This subsection asks for specific compensation amounts that are not taxed, but are considered to be part of your income for the purposes of the FAFSA and are taken into consideration when determining your EFC. All of the figures and amounts should be exact and match documentation such as your tax return and W-2’s if at all possible.

    Make sure not to confuse “child support paid” and “child support received.” Any child support that you were legally required to pay is deducted from your taxable income. That information is entered in the previous section, “Additional Financial Information.” In this section, you are required to list the amount of any child support that was paid to you or your spouse.

    Account balances and net worth: The amounts of account balances should match the last bank statement previous to the date that the FAFSA is filed. Plan ahead – if your application is selected for verification, you should have ready access to those bank statements. Be careful not to include any student financial aid in these balances.

    Most other assets, including investments, must be reported unless they fall into one of the following categories:

    • Your primary home
    • Any small businesses you own if there are less than 100 employees, and it’s controlled (50% or more ownership) by you
    • Life insurance plans
    • A family farm (if you also live and work there)
    • Personal possessions

    What happens after you submit the FAFSA?

    Once you complete your FAFSA form, the heavy lifting is over, but your job isn’t quite complete. Immediately go to FAFSA.gov and check the status of your application. The four statuses you may see are “processing,” “processed successfully,” “missing signatures” or “action required.”

    Your form should say “processing” at this point. If it says “missing signatures” or “action required,” you need to correct the error to get your form into the processing stage. Once there, it should take 3-5 days for your form to complete if you filed online. Paper filers should expect to be able to check the status of their FAFSA student aid in 7-10 days.

    If your FAFSA application says something about being flagged for verification, you will need to provide the extra documentation requested. Some of the best strategies to avoid getting flagged include checking your information for accuracy before submitting, meticulously checking your Student Aid Report, and reaching out to a school’s student aid office if you have questions.

    After the process is completed, you can review your Student Aid Report (SAR) to make sure there are no errors. The SAR doesn’t tell you how much aid you’re eligible for, though. That data will come via aid offers or award letters from the schools listed on your FAFSA form. The timing of these award letters varies greatly by school.

    The Student Aid Report

    If you FAFSA doesn’t get flagged for verification, you should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) several weeks after you file if you signed electronically.

    What’s on the Student Aid Report?

    Your SAR will have a brief summary of your FAFSA, and will specify your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC isn’t what you think your family could afford to pay; rather it’s the basis for determining your comparative “need.” The idea is that the government tries to award the most “need-based financial aid” to those families and students who have the least chance of attending college without it.

    The SAR also shows an estimate of your eligibility for student aid, including your eligibility for:

    • Federal Pell Grants
    • Federal Student Loans
    • Work-Study Programs

    Listed on your SAR is information about all the schools you identified on your FAFSA – such cost of attendance, graduation rates, and transfer rates. Your chosen schools are also sent a copy of your SAR called the Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR). The colleges’ financial aid department will then use that information to create your financial aid package.

    If you are interested in attending a college that’s not listed on your FAFSA and want them to get a copy of your ISIR, you can give them access by providing your Data Release Number that’s listed on your SAR.

    Where your Student Aid Report is sent: If you provided a valid email address, you will receive a link to the electronic form of your Student Aid Report (SAR) after your FAFSA is processed. If you didn’t provide an email address, the report will be sent to the permanent address listed on your FAFSA. Obviously, you will get access more quickly if you opted to receive it via email.

    Making changes to the SAR: If any of the information on your SAR is incorrect, make sure to correct the information on your FAFSA as soon as possible. You can do this by logging in and using your save key to access your FAFSA. If you have lost or forgotten your save key, you can also make changes by writing them on your physical copy of the SAR and signing and sending it in.

    The different types of federal student aid

    Grants

    The first (and best) kind of Federal Student Aid is grants. Since grants are basically free money, you should always take advantage of them if you can. The next few sections discuss the types of grants for which you may qualify.

    Federal Pell Grants

    To qualify for a Federal Pell Grant, you must be an undergraduate with financial need who isn’t incarcerated, and hasn’t been convicted of a sexual offense. The amount maximum amount that can be awarded is $5,920. The actual amount that you are awarded is based on the difference between your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and the Cost of Attendance (CoA) at your college. A couple of other factors include your status as a full-time or part-time student, and whether you plan to attend school for a full academic year or less.

    Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant

    Only those undergraduates with extreme financial need at participating schools qualify for the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (FSEOG). This grant is awarded to students who received a Federal Pell Grant, and have the most relative financial need.

    The maximum amount given out is $4,000 a year, while the actual amount that you receive is dependent on your financial need, when you apply (the funds available to your school are limited), and the amount of any other financial aid that you were awarded.

    TEACH Grant

    The $4,000 TEACH Grant is only available to potential teachers who are enrolled in an eligible program at a participating school. Additionally, to qualify for this grant you must be maintaining certain academic standards (generally a 3.25 GPA), have completed TEACH Grant Counseling (this must be done every year the grant is awarded), and sign a TEACH Grant Agreement to Serve.

    Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant

    To qualify for the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant, you have to meet every eligibility requirement for the Federal Pell Grant, except a low Estimated Family Contribution. If your EFC is too high to be considered for a Federal Pell Grant, you can still qualify for this grant if you are a son or daughter of a member of the Armed Forces who died as a result of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11 (the beneficiary must have been under 24, or enrolled at least part-time in college when his or her parent or guardian was killed).

    The award for this grant is $5,815 for the 2017 – 2018 school year, but it cannot be greater than your cost of attendance for the current school year. If you qualify, this grant will be paid through the financial aid department at your college.

    Loans

    While Federal Student Loans aren’t quite as desirable as grants (since you have to pay them back), they are still a huge help, and can save you tons of money since they typically come with much lower interest rates than rates that are offered by private lenders. Another great perk of Federal Student Loans is that they have great repayment options.

    Subsidized Loans: The main benefit of subsidized loans is that the government pays your interest while you are enrolled in school (you must be enrolled at least half-time), during the six months after you graduate or stop attending, and during a period of deferment.

    To qualify for this type of loan, you must have demonstrated financial need. The amount you can borrow is determined by your college’s financial aid department and cannot exceed your financial need.

    Unsubsidized Loans: Unsubsidized loans are similar to subsidized loans, but you are responsible for paying the interest that accumulates while you are attending college. Since you don’t have to demonstrate financial need, most students qualify for this type of aid. The amount you can borrow is determined by your cost of attendance and how much other financial aid you receive.

    Direct PLUS Loans: Students who are working on a graduate or professional degree usually qualify for a Direct PLUS Loan if they are enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school and don’t have an “adverse credit history.” This type of loan is unique in that parents can also use this loan to help pay for the college expenses of their children (if he or she is an undergraduate). You can borrow the full amount that it costs to attend college, minus any other financial aid that is being received.

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    Work-Study Programs

    The last type of Federal Student Aid is basically a part-time job. Work-study jobs can be on or off campus and is related to your courses whenever possible. The compensation is at least equal to the Federal Minimum Wage. However, you may be paid more for certain types of work, or if certain skills are required. The total award depends on when your application is processed, your level of financial need, and your school’s funding.

    Additional types of aid

    On top of these main options, there may be additional funding options available to students. These options include, but are not limited to:

    • Aid for military families A
    • id for international study
    • Tax benefits for education
    • Community service-related education awards
    • Training vouchers for former foster kids
    • Specialized loan repayment programs through the Department of Health and Human Services

    While the FAFSA can be quite confusing if you aren’t adequately prepared, completing the application isn’t something you have to dread. If you have all the necessary documents in hand, and you are prepped with what to expect, then you can fly through it. The sooner you start your FAFSA, the sooner you can finalize your college plans with the peace of mind that comes from knowing you got every scrap of financial aid you deserve.

    We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

    Jason Lee

    Contributing Writer

    Jason Lee is a U.S.-based freelance writer with a passion for writing about dating, banking, tech, personal growth, food and personal finance. As a business owner, relationship strategist, and officer in the U.S. military, Jason enjoys sharing his unique knowledge base and skill sets with the rest of the world. Follow Jason on Facebook here

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      Adam Benjamin
      Editor

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      Courtney Mihocik
      Finance Editor

      Courtney Mihocik is an editor at The Simple Dollar who specializes in insurance, personal finance, and loans. Previously, she wrote and edited for Interest.com, PersonalLoans.org, Ballantyne Magazine, Thread Magazine, The Post, ACRN, The New Political, Columbus Alive and the Institute for International Journalism.