What Is FAFSA and How Does It Work?

As you prep for the college admissions process, what do you think is the most important decision you’ll make?

That’s something I talk about with students all the time. I hear a lot of different answers—choosing the best school, finding the right major, or maybe figuring out where to meet the cutest guys or girls.

Those are all important details (okay—maybe not the last one), but none of them are as big a deal as the decision about how you’ll pay for it all.

That’s right—I said it. When it comes to college, nothing matters as much as finding the cash to pay for it. You want to get in and out of college without student loans, right? Right. And that’s why you need to know all the details about a form called the FAFSA.

What Is FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It’s the form schools will use to decide how much money to offer you for college, and also what kinds of aid you qualify for. You can fill it out here.

But hold up—before you jump to the FAFSA website, you need to know a few things about how it works.

Financial aid for students comes in two basic forms:

  • Student loans: I want you to stay the heck away from these!
  • Free money through scholarships and grants: This is the only kind of student aid I recommend, because you never have to pay it back! There are a ton of different scholarships available, both directly from your school and from many other sources. And there are two main kinds of federal grants: the Pell Grant and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG Grant).

FAFSA is used to figure out your eligibility for both kinds of aid, but I need to say this louder for the people in the back: Don’t go into debt to attend college. It’s totally possible to cash flow your education!

The reason I’m so passionate about helping you avoid student loans is because of the stress and problems I’ve seen them cause in the lives of so many young people (including my own life). I’m one of millions of Americans who fell for the lie that you have to take out loans to go to college. I wound up with a ton of student loan debt—and a ton of regret. It’s all paid off today, but it took a lot of time and energy to knock it out. But with the FAFSA and the availability of so many scholarships and grants, there’s no way debt should even be an option.

When Is the FAFSA Deadline?

The key dates for the 2019–2020 award year are October 1, 2018 (the first day to apply) and June 30, 2020 (the deadline). That means the application is open now—so if you meet the requirements, go ahead and apply ASAP! Don’t wait. If you miss the deadline, you could miss out on aid and be forced to pay out of pocket or have to sit the year out. Not fun.

Keep in mind that state financial aid deadlines vary, so head to the FAFSA website to find out each state’s exact requirements. You can also check for financial aid deadlines on your potential college’s website.

What Are the FAFSA Requirements?

Real talk: There are a few requirements you need to meet in order to benefit from the FAFSA form.

To get Federal Student Aid, you need to:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or U.S. national
  • Have a green card, an Arrival-Departure Record, battered-immigrant status, or a T-visa (if you’re not a U.S. citizen)
  • Have a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate, or if you were homeschooled, have completed a state law-approved high school education program
  • Be enrolled as a student (or at least accepted) in an approved degree or certificate program
  • Be registered with Selective Service (this is only a requirement if you’re a guy age 18–25)
  • Have a valid Social Security number
  • Sign statements on the FAFSA form saying that you’re not in default on a federal student loan, you don’t owe a refund on a federal grant, and you’ll use federal student aid for your education ONLY

How to Fill Out the FAFSA:

I know the FAFSA form can be super confusing—I mean, nobody can even pronounce it (supposedly it’s pronounced FAF-sa). But don’t let the unfamiliarity of the form stop you from filling it out! To make it easier, here’s the step-by-step process:

1. Make sure you have easy access to these things:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers
  • Your driver’s license number
  • Your parents’ federal tax information or tax returns that include IRS W-2 information. (If you’re filling out the 2019–2020 FAFSA, you’ll need tax info from 2017.)
  • Records of your parents’ untaxed income
  • Info on your parents’ cash, savings and checking accounts, investments, real estate, and any business or farm assets. (Keep in mind: If you’re not dependent on your parents, all of this info will need to be your own.)

If all this makes you feel like you’re about to break out in hives, you can check out this FAFSA preview worksheet that gives an overview of the kinds of questions you can expect to answer on the official form.

2. Create an FSA ID (you can find it here).

This is the username and password you’ll need in order to access, save, and electronically sign your FAFSA documents. If you’re a dependent, your parents will need their own FSA ID as well in order to sign your FAFSA form.

3. Start filling out the form on fafsa.gov.

Don’t let this intimidate you—the prompts will walk you through it. If you don’t know what something means, click on the small blue circles with question marks or use the search bar on the FAFSA website.

There’ll be sections for you to fill out about your personal information and what schools you want the FAFSA to be sent to (you don’t have to decide on a school, or even be accepted yet for the FAFSA information to be sent there). There’ll also be a section on parent demographics and financial information that your parents will need to fill out.

4. Sign the form.

If you’re a dependent, you and your parent need to sign the FAFSA form online using your FSA IDs.

5. Submit the FAFSA!

There’s no need to print it out—it’ll be sent to colleges electronically. Now take a deep breath, because the hardest part is over (praise!).

Here’s what happens after you submit the FAFSA:

  • Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be calculated. Your EFC is based on your family’s income, benefits, etc. that were included on the form. Keep in mind there’s really no income cutoff to qualify for aid.
  • The financial aid office at each school you had your FAFSA sent to will figure out your cost of attendance (COA) at that school. Your COA includes tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, etc.
  • The financial aid office will then crunch some numbers to figure out how much need-based or non-need-based aid you could get.
  • Each school will send you an award letter with that info, letting you know if you’re eligible to get any scholarships, grants or loans. Which one of those do we not want? That’s right—loans.

Remember that grants and scholarships are your best friends here. Either kind of free cash is sweet! Definitely accept those right away.

Don’t Sign Up for Loans by Mistake!

Listen up! The award letter can be a confusing document. In fact, it’s something that’s caused a lot of stress for way too many young people I know because of a common misunderstanding: People think they’re signing up for scholarships, and don’t realize they’re putting themselves on the hook for loans!

Don’t let this happen to you. Read the whole letter slowly and carefully—especially the fine print! Then, before you sign anywhere, make absolutely sure you’re only signing up for free money! Have your parents or someone else you trust look over your award letter to make sure you don’t set yourself up for years of debt.

Here’s the truth: Schools don’t really care how you pay for your tuition, room and board. All they care about is getting you to enroll, because they’ll get paid either way—whether it’s from your own cash and scholarships up front, or through a lender on your behalf. But you have to care about the difference, because the burden of future debt repayment will be on you!

Let me give you another tip about financial aid. You shouldn’t assume you’re going to get solid advice from your school’s financial aid officers, even though they probably mean well. As I’ve learned in my own conversations with people who work in financial aid, they usually think it’s impossible to attend school without taking out loans. But I’m here to tell you that it’s totally possible!

And with something as serious as your money, you need to be the one taking ownership of this process. No one else is going to jump in and do it for you!

Listen–I know this whole FAFSA thing can feel like way too much information, so check out this free FAFSA Guide that breaks down the process in a way that’s simple and easy to read. Keep it on hand as you’re filling out the form in case you start hyperventilating and forget what step comes next. Kidding. You’ve got this!

 

About Anthony ONeal

Since 2003, Anthony has helped hundreds of thousands of students make smart decisions with their money, relationships and education. He’s a national bestselling author and travels the country spreading his encouraging message to help teens and young adults start their lives off right. His latest book, Debt-Free Degree, helps parents get their kids through college without student loans. Connect with Anthony on YouTubeInstagramFacebook and Twitter.