FAFSA 101: What You Need to Know About the Free Application for Federal Student Aid

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If you’re a prospective college student, you may be wondering how you’re going to pay for your higher education. Tuition costs are skyrocketing and getting a college education without some form of financial aid has become unrealistic for the majority of people in the country.

Luckily, federal student aid has never been more accessible than it is today. The Free Application for Federal Student aid (FAFSA) is one of the most important applications you will need to fill out before you attend school. This application is the only way for students to gain access to federal grants, loans, and work-study opportunities.

With that in mind, it is vital that you know what the application is and what the process looks like before you apply for federal aid. This article goes over the basics of the FAFSA, some of the most commonly asked questions, and more.

FAFSA Basics

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the only way for students to gain access to federal loans in the U.S. If you’re planning on attending a college or university, it can be extremely helpful to know a bit about the process before diving in headfirst.

Here are some of the basics regarding the FAFSA.

Before You Apply

Before you start the application, it’s important to get all of the required financial documents in place first. When you fill out the FAFSA, you and some of your family members will need to use your most recent tax returns to input some information on the application.

Those who are applying for the fall of 2022 should use their 2021 tax returns. Thankfully, FAFSA has made it easy to transfer your income data directly from the IRS website, making the process a lot faster and more efficient.

Here is some additional information that you may want to have on hand before applying:

  • Your Social Security Number or Alien Registration Number
  • Your federal income tax returns, W-2’s, and any other proof of income
  • Record of investments and bank statements (if applicable)
  • Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
  • An FSA ID to apply electronically

Creating an FSA ID

When you begin the application process online, you will start by setting up your account information creating a user ID and password.

Once created, your FSA ID can be used to log in to all federal student aid programs. To create this ID, you will need to provide your email address and password. Setting up a user ID and password is the first step in getting started on the FAFSA.

To create an FSA ID, click this link.

When to Apply

The first day you can apply for aid each year is October 1st. Filing quickly after this date is important, provided you don’t rush the process. This is because federal aid is granted on a first-come-first-served basis. It also can help you stay on top of early deadlines that differ depending on which colleges you’re applying to.

More information can be found on the Federal Student Aid website, which provides an in-depth, step-by-step guide that should answer any questions you have about the filing process.


Filling out the FAFSA may seem intimidating – especially if it is your first time applying for federal student loans. It’s important to take your time and make sure you have all the information you need before you submit your application.

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about the FAFSA. Feel free to refer back to them when you are applying.

What is FAFSA?

FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It is the main form that all students will fill out if they’re interested in getting access to a federal government student loan, grant, and/or work-study program.

Federal aid can only be granted after filling out the FAFSA, which becomes available on October 1st every year.

How Much Aid Can I Expect to Receive From the FAFSA?

Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t share how they decide the amount of aid you will be eligible for. The formula they use to determine the amount of aid you can receive is intentionally withheld in an attempt to prevent people from taking advantage of the system.

Therefore, the only thing that you can control is how you answer the questions they provide you in the application. When filling it out, you should make every effort to answer the questions in a detailed and honest way.

What is the Best Strategy for Filling Out a FAFSA Application?

Since the formula for determining the amount of aid you are eligible for is not readily available, the best strategy you can employ is to answer the questions honestly and thoroughly.

The FAFSA is the only form that needs to be filled out to initially qualify for federal aid. It is important to get started on filling out your application as soon as possible. Do not wait until the last minute.

By doing so, you might get yourself into a situation where you need to rush through the application and not give as detailed answers as you should. Even the questions that might seem basic should be answered with care. Questions that seem particularly easy shouldn’t be answered without thought; oftentimes, it is these questions that are the most important.

Should Student Income be Included in the Family Income Section?

Most definitely not. In many instances, families make the mistake of including student income in the FAFSA application process. People who put down student income are claiming the same income twice. This means that you should only include family income to give yourself the best chance at receiving the highest possible amount in aid.

Are Tax Documents Required for the FAFSA?

Yes, students and families looking for federal aid will need to submit federal income tax documents during the FAFSA filing process. This is why it is important to file your taxes early and electronically if possible.

By doing so, the application system will be better able to detect your tax information because the system is set up in a way that makes it easy to merge electronically filed taxes into the FAFSA application. This could save you a lot of time during the application process.

Should I File the FAFSA Early?

It is important to know that there is a limited amount of funds available through FAFSA, so it would seem like common sense to file your application early. However, this isn’t always the best strategy.

If filing early means that you are going to rush the process just for the sake of getting it over with, you would be better served to take your time. By taking the necessary time to make sure you’re filing everything correctly and as detailed as possible, you can ensure the best outcome for your application and get the funding needed for your education.

To have the best shot at getting the funds you need to cover your educational expenses, you should double and triple-check all your work to make sure all the information submitted is accurate. After you’ve done that, you can then submit your form.

The only exception to this rule is if you know you’re going to have a significant income boost before getting approved for a loan. This is a situation when waiting to file your income information can hurt your ability to access a larger amount of financial aid.

What is the Deadline for Filing the FAFSA?

Each state has a different filing deadline for the FAFSA. The form becomes available on October 1st of each year; however, the final deadline will depend on your location.

To look up the deadlines state-by-state, check out this link to the FAFSA Application Deadlines.

Additionally, it is important to know that there can be as many as 30 supplemental forms that schools may request, with each containing a different filing deadline. With that in mind, it is essential to check on the deadlines with all the different colleges you are applying to.

What Can I Do if I Miss the Deadline?

If you get yourself into a situation where you think you might miss the deadline for filing the FAFSA, you should contact the school immediately to request an extension. While it is not guaranteed that they will grant you one, it is still worth the effort because some schools will allow extensions.

With that being said, if the school is not willing to grant you an extension, you will no longer be eligible to receive benefits and will need to wait for the following year to re-apply.

How Do I File the FAFSA?

The best way to file your FAFSA is through an online application. This will be the most efficient way of doing it. You can also file by mail if you print the PDF version of the application. You can also request a hard copy to be sent to you through the post office, but that will probably take the longest.

For more information about these different options, you can visit the Federal Student Aid website.

What Happens After You Apply?

Once you’ve submitted your application, your family’s financial information will be analyzed using the federal need formula. Once analyzed, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), which contains the information you entered on the FAFSA.

The U.S. Department of Education will send this form by email or post. Once you receive the SAR, make sure that everything submitted on the document is correct.

If there are any errors, be sure to follow the direction for making and submitting corrections. This should be done promptly. Make sure to keep the SAR for your records. Once everything has been submitted correctly, you can expect to hear from the schools you applied to within a relatively short time.

Should I Accept my FAFSA Offer as Soon as Possible?

When receiving an offer for financial aid, you shouldn’t immediately accept all of the funds offered to you. It is generally recommended to accept financial aid offered to you in this order:

  1. Free money first (scholarships or grants)
  2. Earned money second (work-study opportunities)
  3. Borrowed money last (student loans)

Make sure you are aware of the conditions you are required to meet for scholarships and grants that you apply for. It’s always best to accept funds that you will not need to pay back first. After that, you will need to calculate how much you need to borrow in student loans and DO NOT borrow any more than you need.


Now that you’re more aware of how the FAFSA process works, you can go into the process feeling more confident and ready to enter into the next chapter in your life. With tuition costs being as high as they are today, knowing your way around federal student aid can save you thousands in the long run.

Federal student loans are a great resource for any student because they carry much lower interest rates than private loans and can be one of the best ways to fund your higher education.

Overall, the FAFSA process isn’t as tedious as it may seem. As long as you take the time to answer the questions on the application as accurately as you can and apply early, you should have no problem getting the aid you need to cover your college expenses.

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