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What You Should Know When Filing a FAFSA for Grad School
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You likely filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as an undergraduate student. The process of getting financial aid for graduate school is basically the same: You can submit a FAFSA for grad school to access grants, scholarships and low-rate student loans.
That said, there are a few distinctions when filling out FAFSA for graduate school. Here are some key questions you’ll want to answer, along with how to apply:
The FAFSA for graduate school can be completed online or via the mobile app. Here are eight steps to fill out your application:
- Create an FSA ID
- Start your FAFSA application
- Choose the correct FAFSA form
- Fill out the demographics section
- List all potential schools
- Enter dependency and marital status info
- Supply your financial information
- Sign and submit your FAFSA form
The FSA ID is your digital signature for the FAFSA. Create an account at studentaid.gov, then enter your Social Security number and contact details. Double-check that all info is correct as you’ll be using your FSA to sign all future federal aid forms.
Head to the FAFSA page and select “I am a student and want to access the FAFSA form.” To ensure a speedy process, have the following items ready:
- FSA ID
- Personal information
- Driver’s license number
- Social Security number (or USCIS number if you’re not a U.S. citizen)
- Records of untaxed income
- Previous year’s tax returns (you can also choose to transfer tax details electronically)
|Pro tip: Remember Oct. 1|
|Complete your FAFSA as soon as possible, since aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Unfortunately, many states and schools run out of funds early. Note that each year’s application period opens on Oct. 1.|
Make sure to select the correct year you plan on attending graduate school.
- 2022-2023 FAFSA form: For students attending grad school between July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023.
- 2023-2024 FAFSA form: For students attending grad school between July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024.
If you’re enrolled for two periods, complete the earlier year first, wait until you receive notification that the form has been processed, then go back to submit the later year.
Your FAFSA form may give you the option to complete a “renewal.” If so, clicking this will save you time, since it’ll upload your basic info from last year.
|Pro tip: Reapply each year|
|Your federal financial aid doesn’t automatically renew every year, so mark the deadline in your calendar to remember to reapply next year. And if you miss the FAFSA deadline, don’t panic — there are steps you can take to try to fix it.|
Enter your personal info, such as name and date of birth. It’s essential to enter your full legal name as it appears on your Social Security card.
Add every school you’re considering, even if you haven’t applied or received an acceptance letter yet. You can add up to 10 schools at once.
There’s no harm in including multiple schools in your FAFSA application. In fact, once you commit to a school, the other schools will disregard your FAFSA info.
In almost all cases, FAFSA classifies grad and professional students as “independent.” This means you won’t need to supply your parents’ information when filling out your FAFSA for grad school application.
You will, however, have to include your spouse’s details in your application if you’re married.
With a few clicks, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which transfers your IRS tax information to the FAFSA form. You’ll see a “LINK TO IRS” button if you’re eligible.
You can enter income estimates if you haven’t completed your taxes yet. Just make sure to update your FAFSA immediately after filing your tax return.
|Pro tip: Keep income info up to date|
|Federal financial aid is based on your income, so make sure to update your FAFSA with the most current info.|
Review all information and make any necessary changes. You can then sign the form using your FSA ID and submit.
As with undergraduate federal financial aid, you must demonstrate financial need for most programs. However, FAFSA doesn’t have a maximum income cutoff — meaning it’s still worth applying even if you feel you make too much money.
You must also be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen and be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program.
The main difference between paying for undergrad versus grad school is the Department of Education now views you as an independent student. This means your award is based solely on your (and your spouse’s, if applicable) income and assets. Your parents’ financial details aren’t usually required, except for certain professional programs, like medical school.
There is no age limit to file the FAFSA for graduate school, but there are eligibility limitations. For example, having a criminal conviction, a previous student loan in default or owing a Pell Grant overpayment to the Department of Education could affect your eligibility for federal aid.
|Pro tip: Pell Grants for teachers|
|If you’re enrolled in a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program, you may be eligible for a federal Pell Grant. These are funds that don’t need to be repaid.|
Direct unsubsidized loans tend to have lower interest rates and fees than PLUS loans — for 2022 to 2023, the former carried a 6.54% rate, while interest on the PLUS Loan was 7.54%. However, direct loans have borrowing limits, while PLUS loans usually cover the entire cost of attendance (minus any other financial aid). If students need additional funding or can get a better rate, they can also consider private student loans for graduate school.
In addition to loans, your FAFSA can unlock other types of aid:
- School-based aid: The individual institutions decide what amount to award you based on need and merit.
- Work-study: As part of your package, you could receive a work-study option where you receive an on-campus job, with the salary applied toward your tuition.
- Scholarships: State aid will have scholarships available by field of study, interest or school type. You can also search for additional grad school scholarships and grants to supplement your federal aid package.
You should file your FAFSA as soon as possible after Oct. 1 of the year prior to each enrollment period. This is because a few federal student aid programs have limited funds, and they’re awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Oct. 1: The new FAFSA season opens.
- June 30: Previous FAFSA year closes.
Deadlines for aid from individual states and schools vary. Furthermore, grants for graduate school will set their deadlines, with certain options available throughout the year. Always make note of upcoming deadlines to ensure they’re on your radar.
Additionally, if you are applying for a summer session, check with your college to verify which application you should complete.
After submitting your FAFSA for grad school, you should receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) — a summary of your FAFSA information — within three to five business days. All colleges you applied to will review the SAR.
From there, the schools that decide to admit you will send a formal acceptance letter, accompanied by a financial aid award letter. Typically, these letters will arrive in March or April.
For general information about federal student financial assistance programs, such as needing help completing the FAFSA for graduate school or obtaining federal student aid publications, visit studentaid.gov.
Alternatively, you can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). Their hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, except on federal holidays.
You can also access the live chat feature by logging into your studentaid.gov account.
Can you get financial aid for graduate school?
Yes, financial aid is available for grad students. After filling out your FAFSA, you’ll receive a breakdown of your options, which may include federal student loans, work-study programs and school- and state-funded grants and scholarships.
Who’s considered a graduate school student?
If you’re pursuing a degree beyond a bachelor’s, you’re considered a graduate student. This can include working to earn a master’s degree or doctorate/Ph.D., or enrollment in a professional program such as law school and medical school.
It gets tricky if you tackle a joint undergraduate/graduate program since some schools deem you a graduate student once you start taking graduate-level classes.
Also, if you’re getting a second bachelor’s degree, you could be considered a graduate student when it comes to receiving financial aid. This is determined on an individual basis, so it’s best to talk to your school about these unique scenarios.
What are my options if my financial aid package isn’t enough to cover grad school?
The maximum amount you can borrow yearly with a federal unsubsidized grad school loan is $20,500. Depending on your cost of attendance and other living expenses, and the amount you receive from grants and scholarships, you might need more funds. If so, you can consider a Grad PLUS Loan, private grad school loans or getting a job while you’re in school. (See our guide to private student loans for graduate school for more.)
How do I figure out how much to borrow for grad school?
Research your school’s average cost of attendance and how much student loan debt you think you can handle. Consider factors such as your field of study and estimated salaries. Next, look at your current budget and see where you can cut back, such as buying secondhand clothes or cooking at home.
Use our student loan repayment calculator to experiment with several options. For example, getting a 10-year loan means higher monthly payments, but less accrued interest over the long-term.
Once you’ve crunched the numbers, you should have a clearer idea of how much you can borrow responsibly. Remember, being approved for loans doesn’t mean you need to accept the total amount.
What are the average award amounts for graduate school?
The average grad school student received around $27,000 in 2020-2021 from federal loans, grants, work-study programs and tax credits.
However, this amount will vary depending on your program’s cost of attendance and your eligibility for additional grants.
The financial aid package will typically include a mix of grants or scholarships, loans and work-study jobs. If you’re confused by what it all means, try contacting your school’s financial aid office.
How does disbursement of your financial aid work?
Your federal loans will be sent directly to your school and applied to your outstanding balance of tuition, fees and other institution-based charges.
The school’s financial aid department will then refund the balance to your account, which you can use for other school-related expenses, such as rent, food or supplies.