Common Questions about the FAFSA

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” If you’re thinking about pursuing a college degree or career training, it’s a form you need to complete – either online or by using a paper copy – in order to apply for financial aid. Depending on your personal background, your chosen college, and your financial situation, sources of financial aid may include federal loans, grants, and/or work-study opportunities. Even though its name only mentions federal student aid, the FAFSA is also used to determine whether or not you might qualify for various types of state-based financial aid, as well as for institutional awards offered by your chosen colleges.

In the past, the FAFSA had a reputation for being lengthy and complicated. Tracy Foote, author of the guidebook, “How You Can Maximize Student Aid,” confirms that the FAFSA application has gotten easier in recent years. “The FAFSA process continues to improve,” says Foote. Still, she advises students to do their financial aid homework beforehand. “Students should have a good idea [about what forms of aid are potentially available] prior to completing the FAFSA.” Knowing about potential awards could alter your list of prospective colleges or even your chosen major.

“There are still students in this country who are first generation college students, or who have not had the opportunity to hear about the steps that need to be taken to get into college and be considered for financial aid,” agrees Ashley Bianchi, Director of Financial Aid at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Bianchi says it’s important that financial aid professionals work in their communities to help spread the word about the FAFSA.

What does the FAFSA provide?

After you complete the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). If you provide an email address on your application, your SAR will be emailed to you. Otherwise, it will arrive by postal mail.

Your SAR contains an outline of all the data you provided on the FAFSA. You should review this summary to make sure all the information is correct. Your SAR will also include your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), or the amount of money your household can reasonably be expected to contribute toward your education. Depending on your status as a dependent or independent student (which is explained below), your EFC may or may not be impacted by your parents’ earnings.

Either way, you’re not required to pay the dollar amount listed as your EFC. So don’t get nervous if the figure seems impossible. “Many students will find themselves in this situation,” confirms Ashley Bianchi. “They should know that [EFC] is an index by which the Department of Education determines your eligibility for federal need-based funds. For most schools, this number is a measure of need, and colleges use the number as a minimum contribution to be expected from the family.” She also reminds students that various education loans may be available to help families and students meet their EFCs.

It’s also important to note that completing the FAFSA does not guarantee you will receive any type of financial aid. But if you don’t complete the FAFSA, it is guaranteed that you won’t be considered for any aid offered by the federal government, nor for some aid offered by your state government. 

How will my chosen college(s) receive the results of my FAFSA?

As noted above, the FAFSA may be used to help determine your eligibility for state-based aid and college-sponsored aid. Here’s how:

Step 6 of the FAFSA asks you to enter the “federal school code” of any college you want to receive your FAFSA results. A federal school code is a six-digit number uniquely assigned to postsecondary schools and colleges that are eligible to administer federal financial aid. You can obtain your chosen colleges’ school codes by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID, by calling their financial aid offices, or by checking their financial aid websites.

If you’re filing a PDF FAFSA or a paper FAFSA (see below), space is provided for up to four federal school codes. If you file electronically, you can enter up to ten federal school codes.  In either case, you can call 1-800-4-FED-AID  to add or delete schools on your list. Once you receive your SAR, you can also obtain your Data Release Number (DRN). Additional schools can view your FAFSA results if you choose to give them your DRN.

Can I be considered for financial aid before I’m accepted to a college?

This depends on your chosen colleges. “For a highly selective school like Rhodes, we do wait to prepare financial aid packages until students are accepted,” says Bianchi. “For schools that have open enrollment, the FAFSA may be the first contact students have with the institution, and so that kicks off the admission process for [them].”

What happens after my college receives my FAFSA results?

After colleges receive your FAFSA results, they can make decisions about which (if any) institutional awards they’d like to offer you. They’ll also make note of any federal awards that match your profile. If your state offers grants or scholarships, you may also be considered for these awards after an eligible college receives your FAFSA results and agrees to admit you. Finally, all your award options are presented to you in an “award package” or an “award letter,” which you will receive from the financial aid office once you are admitted. Award packages will likely vary from one school to the next. If you feel that an award package is unfair or insufficient, you may be able to appeal the letter.

“States and colleges sometimes use the FAFSA to qualify students for various awards that are not federal or need-based awards,” reports Bianchi. She explains that using one application for multiple types of financial aid simplifies the financial aid process.

Keep in mind though, many state-sponsored awards are only redeemable at in-state schools and colleges. And in some cases, state awards are only redeemable at public colleges  or at select, participating colleges. This is why it’s important to research what your state offers for aid, and where it applies. If you don’t list any in-state colleges on your FAFSA application, you may not learn about your eligibility for these offerings. Besides the FAFSA, additional forms or supplementary materials may be required in the application process for state-sponsored or college-sponsored awards.

How do I complete a FAFSA application?

When you visit www.fafsa.gov, you’ll see that the FAFSA is available in three formats. You only need to choose and complete one. Remember, though, that you’ll need to complete a new FAFSA for each “School Year” during which you’ll be enrolled in college or postsecondary training. The three formats include:

  • The online application
  • The PDF application
  • The paper application

The online application can be completed and submitted entirely online (provided you use a “Federal Student Aid PIN” to sign your application; see below for more information). This version saves paper and time, as it’s often processed weeks faster than either of the hard copy formats. If you file online you can also save your work, and return to complete, edit, or update any aspect of the application. Finally, the online version features a “Help and Hints” prompt that can guide you through each question.

The PDF FAFSA offers a paper application that you can print yourself.  Like the online version, the PDF lets you enter your data through the computer. You also have the option of printing the form and entering your information by hand.  Unlike the online version, PDF FAFSAs can’t be saved. So if you can’t finish the form in a single sitting, you may have to start from scratch. When you finish, the completed PDF must be mailed to: Federal Student Aid Programs, P.O. Box 4692, Mt. Vernon, IL 62864-4692.

If you don’t have access to Internet service, you may prefer to file the FAFSA offline, using a paper application. You can request a paper form by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID.  Keep in mind that a paper FAFSA usually requires two to three weeks for processing. Another drawback:  if your college program extends beyond one school year, you’ll have to reenter all your information next year, whereas online applicants may have much of their data saved and pre-filled for them.

What is a Federal Student Aid PIN?

Regardless of which FAFSA format you use, you need to sign the application when you’re done. If you’re a dependent student, at least one of your parents or guardians also needs to sign the form. Students who print PDF versions or request paper applications can sign the FAFSA by hand.  Even those who file the FAFSA electronically can choose to print and sign a hard copy of the signature page, which then needs to be submitted by postal mail. If you file your FAFSA electronically, and decide to mail your signature page, FAFSA must receive the page within 14 days, or it will reject your application.

However, the fastest way to sign your FAFSA is to request a Federal Student Aid PIN, which functions much like a bank account PIN number. With a PIN, you can “sign” your FAFSA electronically. You can also: return to your current application to make any necessary updates (e.g. exact figures from your tax returns); view your Student Aid Report (SAR) online when it becomes available; file a FAFSA Renewal for the subsequent financial aid award year, with much of your data saved and prefilled.

How do I obtain a Federal Student Aid PIN?

You can apply for a Federal Student Aid PIN at www.pin.ed.gov. Once there, you have the option of creating your own PIN or receiving a government-issued number. Unless you request that a PIN be sent to you by postal mail, you can access the number instantly (on the screen or through email), and use it to e-sign your FAFSA. Once the Social Security Administration confirms that your social security number matches the other data you provided, your PIN will be validated for all its other uses. If you ever forget your PIN, you can use the same website to request a duplicate PIN. If you’re planning to e-sign, at least one parent of a dependent student should also apply for a Federal Student Aid PIN, since he or she also needs to sign the FAFSA.

Which “School Year” FAFSA do I need to complete? 

January 1 is the earliest you can file a FAFSA for the upcoming school year.  FAFSA defines the “School Year” as extending from July 1 to June 30. If you plan to enroll in courses that will begin after June 30, you should file the FAFSA application that extends into the next calendar year.

What materials do I need to have ready before I start the FAFSA application?

All FAFSA applicants need to gather information in four main categories: personal identification, income information, tax information, and asset information. If you are a dependent student, you’ll need to have all the same information for your parents or guardians, as well. If you’re married, you’ll need to have your spouse’s information on hand.

  • Personal identification: social security number, driver’s license number, and/or Alien registration number (for non U.S. citizens)
  • Income information: W-2 forms from all employers (if available) and estimates of any untaxed income (which may include child support, pensions, veteran benefits, workers compensation, the first-time homebuyers’ tax credit, etc.)
  • Tax information: Federal income tax forms  (If you file your taxes electronically, you can use the IRS data retrieval tool to automatically complete some questions. If you file the FAFSA before April 15, and you haven’t yet filed your taxes, you can estimate the tax figures requested. Be sure to go back and correct estimates with actual amounts, after you do file your taxes.)
  • Asset information: Bank statements, stock and bond information, value of real estate owned (excluding primary residence), 529 college savings plans, etc.

How do I know if I’m a dependent or independent student?

The FAFSA website outlines very specific guidelines for identifying dependent and independent students. If you’re not sure about your status, you should reference the official website and read the full criteria. Below is a summarized list of qualifiers for independent students. This list is not exhaustive. If any of the following applies to you, you are probably an independent student. Independent students are not required to enter financial information about their parents or guardians on the FAFSA application.

  • You were born before 1989.
  • You are married or separated.
  • You are pursuing a master degree, doctoral degree, or a post-baccalaureate certificate.
  • You are a military veteran or active duty member of the Armed Forces.
  • You have children who you support financially.
  • You have ever been declared an emancipated minor, a dependent ward of the court, or an unaccompanied homeless youth.

Do I have to include my email address?

You don’t have to include an email address, but doing so will reduce the time it takes to receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). Emailed SARs are generally available in three to five days. SARs sent by postal mail may not arrive for two to three weeks.

Why does FAFSA need to know my relationship status?

Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is impacted by whether you are single or married. Your status as a dependent or independent student may also hinge on this question. Answer the question based on your current status, on the day you are completing your FAFSA application – even if you anticipate that it will change in coming months. You can update the information later, using your Federal Student Aid PIN and/or by alerting your financial aid advisor.

Why do I have to include my parents’ highest levels of education?

Your answer to this question will not affect your eligibility for federal financial aid. However, some states and colleges offer grants and scholarships to “first generation college students,” meaning those whose parents did not earn college credentials. For the purposes of this question, stepparents and foster parents cannot be used to represent your mother or father.

What if my financial circumstances have changed in recent months?

The FAFSA application asks for information about your income and assets from the previous year – not the current one. It’s possible that your financial situation has dramatically changed since last year.  Death, divorce, new dependents, and job loss can all impact your ability to pay for college. If any of those things happened recently, there’s no place on the FAFSA to explain or illustrate their impact.

Even if doing so misrepresents your current income or assets, you’ll still need to enter the correct information from last year. However, you can explain your current circumstances to financial aid advisors at any college you may choose to attend. Individual financial aid advisors may or may not agree to re-assess your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and the elements of your financial aid package.

What are some common mistakes I should try to avoid when completing the FAFSA?

  • Use your legal name, as it appears on your Social Security card – not a nickname or an initial.
  • Enter “0” or “not applicable” if you’re asked to supply a figure that does not apply to your situation.
  • If you are legally considered a dependent student (even if you don’t live with your parents), you must include their information.

In her experience, Ashley Bianchi has seen some common FAFSA errors, such as parents who complete student sections with their own information, parents and students forgetting to sign the FAFSA, and students leaving some answers blank. If you’re not sure how to answer a question on your application, don’t guess or leave it blank.  Instead, contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC) at 1-800-4-FED-AID.

Who can I call if I have questions about my FAFSA application?

The FSAIC is available to answer questions related to: your application, your PIN, your Student Aid Report (SAR), your federal financial aid eligibility, federal school codes, and more.

The FSAIC can be reached at 1-800-4-FED-AID.  If you are hearing impaired, contact the FSAIC at 1-800-730-8913.

Find An Online College Degree

Sponsored Schools