Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) Overview

What Is the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA)?

The Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) is the primary form you must complete to be considered for most types of student aid. The application is so complex that it asks more income and asset questions than the federal income tax form! The first step in starting the student aid process is to submit the FAFSA application.

Applying for college and student aid means filling out a lot of forms! Some colleges and states require that you complete additional aid applications, so check with your prospective college financial aid office for state- or college-specific requirements.

How Does FAFSA Work?

The U.S. Department of Education doesn't tell you how much aid you will receive. Instead, it tells you how much the federal government expects your family to contribute toward paying for your college expenses. The actual colleges will send you an award letter that will provide details on the type and amount of grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans that you'll receive. Your award letter will help you understand your true out-of-pocket expenses. Unfortunately, colleges don't send out these letters until a few months before the academic year starts, which makes it really hard to evaluate the affordability of each college.

When you apply to a college, the financial aid department subtracts your expected family contribution (EFC) from the college's published cost of attendance (COA) to determine your financial need. To calculate your EFC, the government looks at prior-year income, current assets, and other factors like your household size.

FAFSA Deadlines

Applications may be submitted as early as January 1st prior to the academic year in which you will attend college. If you wish to go to college in the fall of 2012, be sure to submit your FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1, 2012. Competition for student aid is fierce. Many student aid programs are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Make sure to take time to answer every question as accurately as possible, and have someone double-check your answers. Mistakes can hurt you by lowering your aid award.

While state aid programs have different deadlines, most of them fall before April 15 of any given year. It's best to complete your income taxes early or use estimates on your FAFSA so your request is considered as soon as possible. If you use estimates, you can go back and adjust income numbers on your FAFSA once taxes have been filed, but at least you've established your place in the line for aid.

Signing Your FAFSA

To complete your FAFSA and move to the next step in the student aid process, you must officially sign the application. Just like many of the other applications you've completed, signatures are required as a confirmation that you are, indeed, the person who filled out the form and that you are providing the information to the best of your knowledge. For step-by-step instructions on signing your FAFSA, click here.

Making Changes to Your FAFSA

There are three ways to make changes to your FAFSA. You can make updates online, by telephone, or on your printed Student Aid Report (SAR). This process can be kind of tricky, so for step-by-step instructions on making changes to your FAFSA, click here.

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