FAFSA Application Guide: 7 Steps to Get Started

With average student loan debt reaching record heights, getting financial help for school is more important than ever. By filling out a FAFSA application, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, college students can determine what type of aid they qualify for, and how much.

The FAFSA form is the primary form government agencies and schools use to distribute aid. If you're curious about what information this form requires, you can find the application at fafsa.ed.gov.

Types of aid you may qualify for include but are not limited to grants, scholarships, work study, and student loans. Generally speaking, filling out a FAFSA student loans application is your gateway to receiving this important financial help.

2017-2018 FAFSA Changes You Should Know

Two big changes are on their way that can affect the way students apply for aid. The following changes should be noted starting with the 2017-2018 form, per the U.S. Department of Education website:

"Students are now able to submit a FAFSA®earlier. Students have been able to file a 2017–18 FAFSA since Oct. 1, 2016, rather than beginning on Jan. 1, 2017. The earlier submission date is a permanent change, enabling students to complete and submit a FAFSA as early as Oct. 1 every year. (There is NO CHANGE to the 2016–17 schedule. The FAFSA became available Jan. 1 as in previous years.)

Students now report earlier income information. Beginning with the 2017–18 FAFSA, students are required to report income information from an earlier tax year. For example, on the 2017–18 FAFSA, students (and parents, as appropriate) must report their 2015 income information, rather than their 2016 income information."

7 Steps to Fill Out the FAFSA Form

Knowing why the FAFSA is important is only one piece of the puzzle. Beyond knowing "why" this form is a crucial component of your college experience, it's important to know which steps to take first. The U.S. Department of Education blog offers a step-by-step guide on filling out your FAFSA form, which we've summarized here. Prepare to take these steps as you seek out college aid.

Step 1: Go to fafsa.gov and create a FSA ID

In order to gain free access to student aid, you'll need to fill out the FAFSA form on the appropriate government website, fafsa.gov. If you filled out a FAFSA form last year, you can log in using your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. If you didn't fill out a FAFSA form last year and do not have a FSA ID, you can create one here.

If you're a parent, you can log in and select "enter student's information."

Step 2: Choose the appropriate FAFSA form

Since a new FAFSA form is created for each school year, knowing which form to fill out can be tricky. If you plan to attend college between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017, however, you should fill out the 2016-17 FAFSA form – not the new one. If you'll attend college the following year, you'll want to fill out the 2017-18 form.

Please note that filling out a FAFSA form is a yearly event, not a one-time occurrence. Each year you attend college, you need to fill out a new form.

Step 3: Enter your personal details

Once you have selected the right FAFSA form, plan to spend some time filling out details about your life and family situation. Prepare to offer information such as your name, date of birth, and address. If you filled out a FAFSA form in the past, some information (like your personal details) may already be populated for you.

Step 4: Share your family's financial details

This is likely where your parents or guardians will need to become involved in the process. Once you've filled out the FAFSA with your personal details, it's time to share your family financial details using income records for the tax year prior to the academic year you're applying for. If you're filling out the 2017-2018 FAFSA form, for example, you'll want to use 2016 tax information.

If for some reason your family is behind on filing their taxes, you can estimate these details using the prior year's information. However, it's crucial to update these figures so they're accurate once all taxes have been filed. You may even be able to import your important tax details using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

Step 5: List your top school picks

While many students list only one school on their FAFSA application, the U.S. Department of Education says this is a mistake. Since you can add up to 10 schools at a time, they suggest choosing the top schools you're considering and adding them to your application whether you've applied yet or not. By adding more schools, you can find out how much aid you might receive from each option you're considering.

Step 6: Sign the FAFSA form and submit

As you prepare to submit your FAFSA form, it's crucial to go over all included information one more time. Check each page for errors or omissions that might hold up the process. The last thing you want is to wait longer due to a simple error.

Once you're sure all information is correct and the FAFSA form you're submitting is correct for the year you plan to attend, you can sign the document using your FSA ID. Since you're submitting your FAFSA form online in this case, your FSA ID serves as your electronic signature.

Step 7: Review your financial aid package

Once you've submitted your FAFSA form, it might take a while to hear any news – good or bad. After you've received your college acceptance letters, however, you'll get a financial aid letter from each school.

While some aid is free, other types of aid need to be paid back. As you read over your financial aid packages, consider what each type of aid means:

  • Grants and Scholarships – Grants and scholarships are the most sought-after types of aid available, mainly due to the fact they do not have to be paid back.
  • Student Loans Student loans are not all created equal. While some loans are subsidized by the federal government, others are not. Still, other student loans are created for parents and graduate students.
  • Work Study Work study programs create a pathway to earn money to pay for school. These programs are most commonly available to students with financial need, and are administered through the federal government.

Wrapping Up

If you're stressed out over filling out your FAFSA form, keep in mind that the federal government offers help and tutorials that cover each stage of the process. Visit this page for an overview of the FAFSA along with FAQs that address situations commonly faced.

Also remember that it's possible to make corrections to your FAFSA form after the fact by logging into your account and choosing "Make FAFSA Corrections." Changes can take 3-5 days to process, and may affect the outcome of your FAFSA application.

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