It can be difficult to initiate that discussion with your loved ones about pursuing a college education. The fact that the tuition expenses are high is bound to come up. For students and their families, this is the one topic that tends to create the most anxiety. Going back to school is a costly venture, and it is one that requires proper planning to ensure smooth sailing once that first loan bill lands in your mailbox.

Knowing your financial situation will help inform your choices when filling out the FAFSA. You also have to have some sense of direction of where you want your college career to take you. You need to think of any possible unplanned scenarios, such as changing your major or considering the possibility of studying abroad. What are your goals? Do you plan to attend a private university or a public school? Will you be studying out-of-state? Will you be applying for graduate school after obtaining your bachelor’s degree, or are you only planning on four years of schooling at the undergraduate level? These are some of the questions you need to ask yourself when looking ahead. Budgeting for these goals and possibilities will save you a lot of hassle later on.

Cost can seem like a daunting prospect when taking all of the variables that contribute to the cost of tuition into account. Luckily, the FAFSA can simplify your budget plans by streamlining costs with the help of financial aid as provided by the U.S. Department of Education. This federal government program awards billions of dollars every year to make attaining your higher education goals a reality. If you have never filled out a FAFSA before, you may not know what it is, where to go to fill one out or what information you need in order to get started with filing one.

Understanding the FAFSA

The term “FAFSA” translates to “Free Application for Federal Student Aid”. This form is what you need to fill out in order to have the total amount of federal aid you are entitled to calculated for you by the federal government.

To expand upon what federal aid actually entails for you, the student, these funds can in the form of grant money, work study stipends and low-interest loans. There are so many advantages to taking on a federal loan over any private loan. The federal loans program means you get to pay your student loans back at a lower interest rate on the income-based repayment plan of your choice. There are several types of repayment plans that are all tailored to match your unique financial situation once you have finished your schooling. Depending on your career choice, you could even qualify for one of the federal loan forgiveness programs. Also worth mentioning here is the possibility of the federal government covering any accrued interest charges you rack up while attending school. Grant money is federal money awarded to you that never has to be paid back unless you drop out of college. Work study is similar in that it does not have to be paid back to the government once you finish school, but you do have to earn that money by working the number of hours you are approved for. Furthermore, the information you provide on your FAFSA will factor into the types of aid you will be eligible for through your state government or school.

Completing the FAFSA

The FAFSA is accessible exclusively through the government website ( and can be filled out anytime between October 1 and June 30 of a calendar year. You will need to complete the form once every year in order to maintain your aid eligibility.

There are some important documents and information you will need to have at your disposal before filing. You will also need to make sure that your school and the Department of Education both have the correct mailing address and e-mail address. This guarantees that you will receive any important updates regarding your FAFSA results after turning it in.

The first bit of information you need to know is whether you qualify as an independent or dependent student. If you are dependent, then your parent or guardian will need to provide you with their personal and financial information for the FAFSA. Other factors that can influence your status include age, having a military history, attending a doctorate or master’s level program, having dependent children of your own, having a history in the foster care system, being homeless and being an emancipated minor.

Here is our complete breakdown on all information and other related documents you will need for completing the FAFSA.

Document Description
Driver’s License Number You will need to enter your driver’s license number into the FAFSA. You will need to provide your Alien Registration Number if you are not a U.S. citizen.
Social Security Number This is required to prove your status as a legal citizen. Dependents will also need to provide their parent or guardian’s social security number.
Federal Tax Returns, Earned Income & Other Financial Information You need to provide your federal tax return information if you are filing independently. You must also report on any earned untaxed income. For dependents, you will also need to include information on your guardian or parent’s earned untaxed income. Additional information to include will be any money held in checking or savings, veteran’s benefits, child support earnings, interest income, business assets, stocks and bonds, real estate and any cash you may have.
Your FAFSA Password Your FAFSA password is what allows you to access your application and all pertinent information for updates on processing, awards distribution and more.
Your FAFSA PIN Your PIN number is created as an added security measure to protect your personal information from prying eyes. When you first create your FAFSA account, this four-digit number will allow you to log in to your application and sign off on submissions electronically.
Your Preferred Schools A section on the FAFSA will ask you to select at least one school that you want your information forwarded to.

What Happens After Completing My FAFSA?

After hitting the “submit” button on that final page of the FAFSA, what comes next? The good news is that you have finished the hardest part of getting the money you need for school. Now you need to routinely log in and check on the processing status of your application. This can take anywhere from three days up to three weeks. Once your FAFSA has been processed, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that summarizes the information you provided so that you can double check everything to make sure there are no inaccuracies.

The next step involves submitting all supporting documentation for the information previously provided about finances and other personal data. This is done for verification purposes both for your prospective schools and their financial aid offices. After submitting all required information, you are responsible for contacting any schools you are interested in to learn what further steps are required to take in order to guarantee that you meet deadlines for financial aid. Once a school has approved you for enrollment, they will send an award letter to let you know what kind of scholarships or aid you are eligible for and in what amount.

While school, state and federal loans all have their advantages over any private loan, the reality is that you have to pay every cent of it back with interest after finishing school. Before accepting the terms on any loan, you need to read and understand them fully. You are never required to accept any money that is offered to you. If you have additional ways of covering education costs that don’t require taking on the responsibility of a loan, be smart with your money. Otherwise, if you are happy with the terms outlined to you in an award letter and know you want to go forward with it, then it is time to contact the school’s financial aid department to learn the next step in acquiring those monies.

Just remember that once you have received your first round of financial aid that you must adhere to a specific set of eligibility requirements over the span of your student career in order to continue getting that money until graduation. These requirements can pertain to your citizenship status, being enrolled in an eligible program of study at a minimum of a half-time course load for Direct Loan Program monies, not being convicted of certain crimes, keeping your GPA at an adequate level and not going into default on your federal loans.

Further Reading

FAFSA requirements are known to change from time to time, so it is important that you make a habit of routinely checking the U.S. Department of Education website to stay on top of things. For further reading on tips for how to file your FAFSA, visit the following websites: