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Using FAFSA or Federal Student Aid to Pay for College

Written by: Kristy Welsh

Last Updated: October 11, 2017

College tuition grows by leaps-and-bounds every year. So if you or a loved one is college-bound, take advantage of every opportunity for securing financial aid, starting with FAFSA.

What is FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Financial aid for college students granted through this program may be in the form of grants, student loans or work-study programs.

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

The Department of Education does not reveal how it determines the amount of aid for which you qualify nor, in turn, the amount of your "expected family contribution." This formula is intentionally withheld so as to prevent people from "gaming" the system. In other words, the only thing within your control is answering every question in the application as honestly and thoroughly as possible.

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

Because the formula for determining the amount of FAFSA aid is not revealed, the best strategy you have is that of being truthful and thorough. Of course, as with anything else as important as this, do not wait until the last minute. Rushing the process is no strategy at all. In fact, beware of questions that seem like ones you can breeze through with little thought. The easier they seem, the more important they may be.

Should Student Income be Included in the Family Income Section?

Absolutely not. Unfortunately, this is a mistake many families make in the FAFSA application process. If you make this mistake, you are claiming the same income twice. Student income is student income and family income is everything else.

Are Tax Documents Required for the FAFSA?

Yes, you are required to submit federal income tax documents during the FAFSA filing process. For this reason, try to file your taxes early, and electronically. The application system is set up so that electronically-filed taxes can easily be merged into the FAFSA application, thus expediting the process.

Does it Help to File the FAFSA Early?

There is a limited amount of funds available via FAFSA, so conventional wisdom says the sooner you submit, the better. However, it is not worth rushing the process. What's more important than filing early is making sure you are filing it correctly. Double-check, triple-check, then quadruple-check your forms. The only exception to this advice is if you are expecting a big change in your financial situation — on the positive side of things — before the filing due date. That would mean having to include this information in your application, thus lowering the amount of financial aid for which you qualify.

What is the Deadline for Filing an FAFSA?

Each state has a different filing deadline for the FAFSA. Beyond that, there are as many as 30 supplemental forms that colleges may request, any number of which could have different filing deadlines. So it is imperative you check with the schools you are considering, not only for the FAFSA filing deadline, but also to determine what other forms may be required, and by what date.

What if I Miss the FAFSA Filing Deadline?

If you think you may miss the deadline for filing the FAFSA, contact the school to see about getting an extension. Though it may be out of the question, it is certainly not unheard of and worth a try. That said, try to make this request before the deadline has passed. The school may respond more favorably in this regard.

How Do I File the FAFSA?

It is recommended that you file your FAFSA via the online application. However, you also have the option of downloading and printing a PDF version that you mail in for submission. A third, and least appealing option, is you may request that a hardcopy be sent to you via snail mail (i.e., the USPS). For details about all of these options, go to

Should I Accept an Offer of FAFSA as Soon as Possible?

No. When a school offers you FAFSA aid, the last thing you want to do is respond immediately. Why? Because then they will know that their school is probably your top pick and you will be ill-equipped to negotiate a higher offer. That's right! There is room for negotiation in the FAFSA. It's something colleges expect and accept.