It’s that time of year! Time to start figuring out how on earth to fund your college education for next year. That process starts with applying for federal financial aid, which requires filling out a FAFSA.

The 2020-2021 FAFSA is now available, so let’s take a look at exactly what the FAFSA entails, and how to file a fool-proof application that will put you on your way to receiving the most money for college! 

So What is FAFSA?

If you’re preparing to go to college—whether for the first time or as a returning student—chances are that you’ve heard the term “FAFSA” kicked around. Many students have heard of FAFSA but have questions about it.

FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid” and is an application to receive money to pay for college from the United States Government, specifically from the U.S. Department of Education. According to Debt.Org, the U.S. Department of Education gives out roughly $46 billion annually to students to fund their college education. In order to get your portion of this money, the first step is filling out a FAFSA!

The Very Short Version of the FAFSA Process

We’ll get into the nitty gritty details of exactly how to file a FAFSA shortly, but basically, you’ll fill out an application including information about your and your parents’ financial situation. Then, you’ll receive an EFC from the Department of Education.

EFC stands for “Expected Family Contribution,” in other words, what your family can afford to pay in college tuition for the upcoming school year. The lower your EFC, the more aid you’re eligible for.

And just a word to the wise: you’ll have to re-apply each year for the following school year. This means that you won’t necessarily be awarded the same amount over the course of your college education as what you’re awarded for next year. 

Types of Federal Financial Aid

There are basically three types of federal student aid that are awarded through filling out the FAFSA: grants, loans, and work-study funds.

  • Grants are allotments of money that you do not have to pay back, and they’re typically based on financial need.
  • Loans are sums of money that are loaned to you by the government and that will need to be paid back, with interest, over a period of time.
  • Work-study programs provide part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students to help them earn money while in college.

FAFSA Eligibility

Here’s the official list of eligibility requirements for Federal student aid, which we’ve included below:

  • Being a U.S citizen with a valid Social Security number or an eligible non-citizen (a permanent resident or conditional permanent resident (I-551C) with proper documentation)
  • Having a high school diploma or GED
  • Being enrolled or accepted into an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Maintaining satisfactory academic progress
  • Not owing a refund on a federal student grant or be in default on a federal student loan
  • Registering (or already be registered) with the Selective Service System, if you are a male and not currently on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces.
  • Not having a conviction for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid (grants, work-study, or loans).

Key Dates and Deadlines For Filing a FAFSA

Your FAFSA must be filed by midnight Central Time on June 30, 2020 (for the 2020-2021 school year). 

Yes, this is a long window of time, but to maximize your chances of securing financial aid, you’ll want to apply as soon as possible. A lot of federal aid is “first come, first served.”

Your FAFSA is also used to calculate how much money you’re eligible for from state of your residence. Each state has its own deadline, which you can look up here

Additionally, every college you’re applying to has its own financial aid deadline, so you’ll want to check with each one individually.

How to Complete a FAFSA: The Steps

#1 Determine Your Dependency Status

Determining whether or not you are a dependent or independent applicant is actually something you’ll do during the process of answering the FAFSA questions. So if you don’t know off the top of your head, that’s okay! 

But the reason we suggest doing this first is so that you’ll be better able to gather the necessary information beforehand (for example, your parents’ tax information), making the process much easier! 

Here’s the only difference between a dependent student and an independent student as it relates to the FAFSA: if you’re a dependent student, you’ll need to provide your parents’ financial information. If you’re an independent student, you won’t. 

So, are you an independent or dependent? This is a great overview from the Federal Government on dependency status, but here’s the gist of what you need to know:

According to the Federal Government, an independent student is at least one of the following: “24 years old, married, a graduate or professional student, a veteran, a member of the armed forces, an orphan, a ward of the court, someone with legal dependents other than a spouse, an emancipated minor or someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.”

If you are none of the above, then you are a dependent applicant.

Keep in mind that if you are technically a dependent student but your parents are unwilling to complete a FAFSA, you unfortunately cannot be considered an independent student. In some rare instances, you may be eligible for a dependency override, such as in the case of abuse, neglect, or incarceration. 

Lastly, even if you are a dependent, note that you must claim any income you gained as well, including income from contests, gifts, etc.

#2 Create an FSA ID

In order to complete the FAFSA, you’ll have to create an FSA ID, which allows you to access the application online and provide your electronic signature. 

Your FSA is uniquely yours. By law, you can’t create an FSA for someone else or have someone create one for you. This ID is entirely confidential.

If you are a dependent, which requires your parents’ financial information, then your parent(s) will need their own FSA ID.

Some of the most common FAFSA errors occur when students and parents mix up their FSA IDs!

#3 Gather All Necessary Personal Information

Answering the FAFSA questions will be much more of a breeze if you gathered all of your personal information, and your parents’ personal information, before you start.

As far as tax information, you and/or your parents can use this super handy IRS retrieval tool to locate your tax information.

(Note that you’ll see 2018 dates below. This is because FAFSA now takes financial information from the year before last year. So all financial information you gather will be for 2018).

If you’re a dependent student and a U.S citizen you’ll need your:

  • Social Security card
  • Driver’s license (if you have one)
  • W-2 forms (2018)
  • Federal income tax return (2018)
  • Untaxed income records (2018)
  • Current bank statements
  • Parents’ federal income tax return
  • Parents’ 2018 W-2 forms
  • Parents’ bank statements
  • Parents’ untaxed income records
  • Parents’ current business and investment records

If you’re a dependent student and not a U.S citizen:

  • You will submit all of the above, except a Social Security card. 

If you’re an independent student and a U.S citizen you’ll need your:

  • Social Security card
  • Driver’s license (if you have one)
  • W-2 forms (2018)
  • Federal income tax return (2018)
  • Untaxed income records (2018)
  • Your current bank statements

If you’re an independent student and not a U.S citizen:

  • You will submit all of the above, except a Social Security card

#4 Determine What Parental Information You’ll Need

The above list of necessary FAFSA information is a guideline, but as we all know, everyone’s family situation is different. If you’re a dependent student, the information you need to include will vary depending on your parental dynamics. 

For example, what if your parents are divorced? Do you need to provide information for both parents?

This is a great infographic illustrating which parents’ information you’ll need for FAFSA based on your unique circumstance, but here’s the breakdown:

If your legal parents are unmarried, separated, or divorced, and do not live together… 

Provide the above-listed information for the parent you have resided with most during the last 12 months. If you have not lived with one parent more than another, provide information for the parent who has provided more financial support over the last 12 months. 

Note: if the parent you do not live with most paid alimony during 2018, this must be entered as income on your FAFSA.

If your legal parents are unmarried and currently living together…

Provide information for both of your parents. 

If your parents are married… 

Provide information for both of your parents. 

If your parent is remarried after being widowed or divorced… 

Provide information for your parent and step-parent.

If your parent is widowed… 

Provide your living parent’s information.

Finally, it’s worth noting that a legal parent, for the sake of FAFSA, refers to:

  • Your legal biological or adoptive parent 
  • A legal guardian that has been determined by the state and is reflected on your birth certificate

Unfortunately, at this time, foster parents, grandparents, older siblings, widowed step-parents, or aunts/uncles are not considered parents unless they have legally adopted you.

#5 Decide Which Schools Will Receive Your FAFSA

You will need to submit a FAFSA for every school to which you are applying. One of the last questions on the FAFSA asks you to enter 6-digit codes for each college you’re applying to. You can find lists of 6-digit codes at or by calling 1-800-433-3243. If for some reason you can’t find a particular school’s code, you may enter the address and contact information for the school manually.

#6 Answer All of the FAFSA Questions

Once you’ve assembled all of the necessary information (really the hardest part), you’ll enter this information by answering a series of questions on the FAFSA application form. 

There are typically about 108 questions broken down into several categories:

  • Student’s personal information 
  • Student’s financial information 
  • Student’s status (which helps you determine if you need to enter parent information, if you haven’t figured that out beforehand)
  • Parents’ information 
  • Student’s household information
  • Student’s signature, date, and send off 

If you have all of the necessary information handy, answering the FAFSA questions shouldn’t be too hard. If you’re confused about what any of the questions are asking, however, we love this overview of FAFSA questions that offers clarification for each question, as well as who to contact directly for more help.

 #7 Receive Your SAR and EFC

After you file your FAFSA you will receive your SAR report, which stands for “Student Aid Report.” Your SAR will come in the mail within 10 days or by email within 5 days if you provided an email address.

Your SAR will reflect all of the information you provided as well as your EFC (your “expected family contribution,” as discussed prior). 

You’ll also be notified if you have any missing information (in which case you will not receive an EFC) and provided directions for changing any information as needed.

Here’s everything you need to know about your SAR, but note that it will include:

  • A DRN, or “Data Release Number” which can be used later if you want to grant your college permission to change any information on your FAFSA
  • (Possibly) a note that you have been selected for verification. If you receive one, don’t panic! This doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. You can read more about the steps to take for verification here.

Note that your SAR will not contain the amount of federal student aid you’re eligible for; that information will come in the form of award letters from each college directly.

#8 Make Any Changes Necessary

Once you receive your SAR report, if the information is not correct, you can simply sign back into you FAFSA account (remember that FSA ID!) and select “Make FAFSA Corrections.”  

You can also make more substantial changes, for instance, if your financial situation has significantly changed. Here’s more information on exactly how to make changes to your FAFSA after it’s filed.

#9 Receive and Interpret Your Financial Award Letters

When you get accepted to a college (yay!) you’ll also receive a financial aid award letter detailing your financial aid package, which is determined in large part by your FAFSA. 

Essentially, your financial aid package is the total amount of money a school is willing to provide you, including federal aid and the school’s own financial aid (which can vary greatly school to school) 

In terms of the federal aid you receive, there are 3 categories you may see reflected in your letter, which we touched on earlier:


Here’s an overview of federal grants, but one of the most common types is the need-based Federal Pell Grant, designed for lower income undergraduate students. Pell grants range from about $500 to $5,500 depending on need. 

There are also grants available for students whose parents have served in the military and for students who are taking courses to become teachers.

Recall that grants do not need to be repaid. 


Here’s an overview of federal loans. The U.S Department of Education uses a system called the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, under which there are 4 types of loans:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans for undergraduate students in financial need.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans for undergraduate, graduate, or career college students that are not based on financial need.
  • Direct PLUS Loans for graduate or professional students and for parents of dependent undergrads to help pay for educational expenses not covered by other types of financial aid. These loans are contingent upon a credit check and are not need-based.
  • Direct Consolidation Loans which allow you to combine all of your federal loans into one single loan

Recall that loans do have to be repaid over a specified period of time with interest paid.

Work Study

Here’s an overview of work study funding, which essentially means that your school provides you a part-time job to help pay for school. 

Work-study jobs pay at least minimum wage, and vary in the total amount paid based on whether you’re an undergraduate or graduate student.

Overall, financial aid award letters can be a little tricky to understand, so we recommend actually talking to a financial aid advisor at each college you’re applying to, so that you are absolutely sure how much money you’re receiving, what you’ll be responsible for paying back, and so on. 

This is a great guide on how to read a financial aid award letter as is this guide to financial aid award letters that includes a helpful award letter breakdown.

#10 Appeal Your Financial Aid Award if Necessary 

If you did not receive enough financial aid to afford the total cost of a particular college, the first thing you should do is contact the financial aid office. You always have the option of appealing for more money, which is something many students don’t know. However, every school has a different policy for appealing for more financial assistance, and you will want to follow the protocol exactly. 

It can be very tricky to receive more financial aid, but it’s not impossible. You may be asked by a financial aid advisor to write a letter of appeal explaining why you need more money. A very good reason to write an appeal letter is if a family or life circumstance has changed since you filed your FAFSA. For example, if you’ve had a death in your immediately family, you may be a strong candidate to receive more aid. Here’s a resource we love on how to write a financial aid appeal letter.


Here’s a collection of FAFSA FAQs for your reference, but the following are some of the most common questions students have about the FAFSA and federal financial aid.

If FAFSA free?

It sure is (it’s not just a clever name). There are no explicit or hidden fees to file a FAFSA. If for some reason you are asked to provide payment to file, you are not using a legitimate FAFSA application!

Is FAFSA required?

No, but if you’re looking for financial aid of any variety, you’ll want to fill one out. Federal, state, and campus-based financial aid award packages are generated using FAFSA, so if you need money for college, FAFSA is where to start!

Is FAFSA worth filling out?

Yes, yes, 1000 times yes! Many students miss out on the FAFSA because they assume they’re not eligible for financial aid or they’re intimidated by the application process. But the federal government has billions of dollars to give in student aid—don’t leave your share on the table!

How do I accept financial aid?

Here are the official instructions for accepting your financial aid. Basically, you’ll have to inform your college directly about which aid you want to accept. Each school has its own process, so read your reward letter carefully. For loans, you will be asked to sign a promissory note, promising to repay your loans. 

Do I have to accept all of my financial aid?

Nope! Only accept what you need. A good rule of thumb when it comes to accepting financial aid is to start by accepting the money that you don’t need to pay back. Then you can decide how much, if any, of the loans you will need to accept to cover the cost of school.

How do I receive my financial aid?

Okay, so you’ve accepted your financial aid…now how do you actually get the money? Each college may have a separate protocol for how the money is actually disbursed, here’s a solid overview about receiving your federal aid. Generally, the money you receive covers the whole academic year and is distributed in two chunks from the dederal government through your college and into a college account that you can then use to pay for courses, etc.

Beyond FAFSA: Other Ways to Pay for College

For many students, federal aid does not cover the total cost of college attendance and living expenses. That’s where Scholly comes in! Our newly revamped Scholly Search is the boldest, baddest scholarship-matching engine that finds you free money for school. Using hyper-personalized search parameters, Scholly finds scholarship opportunities that are tailored just for you, which helps increase your chances of winning! Scholly has already helped students win over $100 million in scholarships, and it’s your turn next!

We also offer all kinds of exciting scholarship and student loan payoff opportunities, so make sure you check back regularly!