Paying for College

Financial Aid: A Step-by-Step Guide to the FAFSA

According to the office of Federal Student Aid, $120 billion (yes, BILLION!) in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds are awarded annually to more than 13 million students. Want to be part of that 13 million?

There’s always one major thing weighing on everyone’s mind when applying to college: money. More specifically, how to find as much financial aid as possible to fund your education. According to the office of Federal Student Aid, $120 billion (yes, BILLION!) in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds are awarded annually to more than 13 million students. Want to be part of that 13 million?

The single most important step is filling out the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. All high school seniors are eligible to fill out the FAFSA starting on October 1. You’ll want to file as early as possible- financial aid is often awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for aid, file your FAFSA! Seriously. Many schools require it for admissions and scholarships.


Q: When will I get my results?

A: After your FAFSA is filed, your Student Aid Report (SAR) should arrive within a few weeks. At this point, if you’ve already been admitted to a school (or a few schools), you should start receiving financial aid award letters.

Q: Which year’s tax information do I submit?

A: You’ll need the numbers from your prior-prior year federal income tax return. For example, for the 2018-19 academic year FAFSA, you would use your 2016 income tax return.

Q: Do I really have to file it?

A: Technically, no. But yes! There is no income cutoff to apply, and it won’t just affect federal aid; your college may offer you other financial awards if you have a completed FAFSA on file.

Q: Do I have to file it more than once?

A: Yes, you’ll have to file a new FAFSA every year you’re in college.

Q: What if I’m not a senior?

A: If you want to know how much federal student aid you might be eligible for once you do start applying to colleges, the FAFSA4Caster is what you need. Just fill out some basic information, and it will estimate your eligibility for federal student aid. Check it out at!


You and your parents should have your financial and demographic info ready to go. This includes:

  • Federal income tax returns or W-2’s
  • Bank statements
  • Untaxed income and investment records (like 529 accounts)

You’ll have to wait for 30 minutes after creating an account before you can log in and start filling out your FAFSA— be patient!


Here’s exactly what you’ll need to submit:

  • Legal name
  • Social Security Number
  • Birthdate
  • Permanent home address
  • Email address (Don’t use your school email address! Use the one you’ll still have access to after you graduate.)
  • Driver’s License number
  • Citizenship status
  • Gender (Males will automatically be registered for Selective Service, the system used to draft young men into the armed service in times of need. Young men are required by law to register with the Selective Service when they reach the age of 18.)
  • Consideration for a work-study program
  • Parents’ level of education (If a parent attended college but did not graduate, mark high school graduate— this may qualify you for more aid!)
  • Prior drug convictions (Select “No” to this question if:)
    • You have never been convicted for possessing or selling illegal drugs
    • The conviction was not a state or federal offense.
    • The offense occurred before you were 18 years of age and you were not tried as an adult.
    • The conviction was removed from your record.


You can select up to six schools you want to send your FAFSA report. In this section, you’ll have to fill out:

  • Name and city of your high school
  • Current grade level
  • Degree/certification you’re pursuing
  • Whether you will be staying on campus or not

Choose the schools you want, and enter their six-digit federal school code to make sure they receive your report. TIP: Look these codes up on Google!


Most high school students are dependent on their parents’ financial support. You can file as an independent student if you meet any of the following criteria:

  • At least 24 years old
  • Married
  • Graduate or professional student
  • Veteran
  • Member of the armed forces
  • Orphan or ward of the court
  • Have legal dependents other than a spouse
  • Emancipated minor
  • Homeless or at risk of becoming homeless


In the “Student Untaxed Income” section, you should report the financial support you receive. If your biological parents are divorced, you only need to report the financial information of the parent who has legal custody of you. Here’s what you’ll need for this section:

  • Parent marital status and marriage date
  • Parents’ SSN and birthdates
  • Parent email address
  • Size of household
  • Number of students attending college
  • Number of dependents or relatives your parent(s) pay 50% or more of their financial support


Parents will need to submit their income tax return information. TIP: Link to the FAFSA’s IRS retrieval tool— it automatically fills in most fields.

Investments to exclude:

  • The home in which your parents live
  • Cash, savings, and checking accounts
  • Value of life insurance and retirement plans
  • Pension funds
  • Annuities
  • non-education IRAs

What is a dislocated worker? Your parent/parents qualify as dislocated workers if they:

  • Have been laid off.
  • Receive unemployment benefits as a result of being laid off.
  • Are a stay-at-home parent who had to relocate due to factors beyond their control.
  • Owned their own business and lost it due to factors out of their control.
  • Are a spouse of an active duty member of the military, and have been unsuccessful in finding a job as a result of having to relocate.


Here’s the financial info you will need to report:

  • Filing status (single, head of household, etc)
  • Income earnings
  • Cash, savings, and checking accounts
  • Additional earnings like child support, investments, combat pay, etc.

TIP: Link to the IRS retrieval tool to make things easier.


Both you and your parents must sign in to confirm the signature.


You should receive a confirmation email from FAFSA. You will receive a report that tells you your estimated EFC (expected family contribution) based on the answers you provided. Then, your college should send you a financial aid package in the spring!

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