The to-do list can be quite long for students preparing to enroll in post-secondary degree programs. One task students should prioritize, however, is completing their Free Application for Federal Student (FAFSA) — especially if they want need-based financial aid like student loans and grants. Schools use the information collected in the FAFSA to determine what types of financial aid students are eligible for and how much assistance they can receive.

Filling out the FAFSA can seem daunting, but there are ways to make the process easier and more efficient. This article provides several tips for completing the FAFSA to help students and their families check this task off their to-do lists. Students can also learn more about what types of financial aid are available through the FAFSA and what they should know about the student loan repayment process.

What is the FAFSA?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, more commonly known as the FAFSA, is an online application that collects income tax and other relevant financial information about students and their families. Schools use this information to determine students’ eligibility for a range of federal financial aid options, including federal student loans, grants, and work-study funding. Completing the FAFSA is the only way for students to be considered for this type of aid through the U.S. Federal Student Aid program.

States and schools also use information from the FAFSA to determine how much need-based aid they will award to students. Eligibility for various types of financial assistance depends on a few factors, such as a student’s degree program level, dependency status, and the Student Aid Index (SAI).

The FAFSA is always free to submit. Be wary of scams that ask for money to complete and submit the FAFSA; the only website you should use to complete the FAFSA application is The application for the upcoming academic year usually becomes available in October. Deadlines for submitting the FAFSA vary, as there are separate federal, state, and individual college deadlines. Students can complete and submit their FAFSA even if they have yet to be accepted to any colleges.

Types of Financial Aid

Multiple types of financial aid are available to students who complete the FAFSA. Review the chart below to see what types of aid you may be eligible for.

Financial Aid Type Eligible Students Maximum Amount Repayment Details
Direct Subsidized LoansNeed-based loans: the federal government pays interest while students are enrolled in school at least half-time, during a 6-month grace period after graduation, and if loans are in a period of deferment. Undergraduate $23,000 total Repayment begins six months after students graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment; multiple repayment options are available.
Direct Unsubsidized LoansNeed-based loans; students are responsible for paying interest during all periods Undergraduate


Undergraduate: $34,500 total

Graduate: $138,500 (includes loans borrowed for undergraduate study)

Repayment begins six months after students graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment; multiple repayment options are available.
Parent PLUS LoanAvailable to biological or adoptive (and in some cases stepparents) of dependent undergraduate students enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school. Undergraduate The cost of attendance at the school their child will attend minus any other financial assistance received. Repayment begins after the loan is disbursed unless a deferment is requested.
Grad PLUS LoanAvailable to graduate or professional students enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school in a program leading to a graduate or professional degree or certificate. Graduate The cost of attendance (determined by the school) minus any other financial assistance received. Repayment begins six months after students graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment.
Pell GrantStudents must display exceptional financial need and haven’t yet earned a bachelor’s, graduate or professional degree Undergraduate $7,395 (2023-24 academic year) It doesn’t have to be repaid (except in certain circumstances).
TEACH GrantProvides grants to students who are completing or plan to complete coursework needed to begin a career in teaching. Undergraduate


$4,000 per year It doesn’t need to be repaid as long as students complete their teaching service obligation.
Work-StudyPart-time on-campus and off-campus employment opportunities for which students receive hourly wages or a salary paid by the Federal Work-Study program. Undergraduate


Varies; students are paid at least the federal minimum wage. It doesn’t need to be repaid.
ScholarshipsGift aid awarded to students by their institution based on student need and/or merit; may require additional application materials for consideration. Undergraduate


Varies It doesn’t need to be repaid.
State GrantsGift aid awarded by the state where the student attends school. Undergraduate


Varies It doesn’t need to be repaid.

7 Tips for Filling Out the FAFSA

1. Ensure that your school and program are FAFSA-eligible

Students can start their FAFSA before applying or being accepted to a post-secondary program. When applying, students can include up to 20 colleges for the FAFSA data to be sent to, and that list can be edited after submission. However, they should verify that all schools and programs they’re considering are eligible for federal financial aid.

There are three eligible institutions — institutions of higher education, proprietary institutions of higher education, and postsecondary vocational institutions. To be eligible, an institution must have state authorization to provide post-secondary education programs, must be accredited by a recognized agency, and must only admit students with a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent or who are beyond the age of compulsory school attendance in the state where the school is located.

The type of program a student enrolls in matters as well. Eligible programs include those that lead to a degree, including associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate, or a certificate or diploma. This also includes some job training programs through trade schools.

Eligible institutions are listed in the FAFSA’s Federal School Code search database. Students can also confirm school and program eligibility by contacting the institution’s financial aid office.

It’s also a good idea to review student eligibility criteria to ensure you meet the requirements for federal financial aid consideration before starting your FAFSA. For example, students must have and use a valid United States Social Security number when completing the application.

2. Determine your dependency status

A key factor influencing how students complete their FAFSA is their dependency status. Students applying for federal financial aid are either considered dependent or independent.

Their dependency status determines what information students need to provide about themselves and their parents.

Dependent students must complete the FAFSA with their parents’ or legal guardians’ federal income tax information as well as their own if they filed taxes for the previous year, as the Federal Student Aid program assumes dependent students have financial support from their families to attend college. Independent students must only submit their income tax information and their spouse’s, if applicable.

Students are considered independent if they are any of the following:

  • At least 24 years old
  • Legally married
  • A graduate or professional student
  • A veteran or current member of the Armed Forces
  • An orphan
  • A ward of the court
  • Supporting legal dependents other than a spouse
  • An emancipated minor
  • Homeless or at risk of being homeless

Students who are considered dependent but don’t have access to their parents’ income tax information can still complete the FAFSA, although there are extra steps they must take. The types of aid they’re eligible for may be limited, too. Students in this situation can also apply to be considered provisionally independent. Before you start the FAFSA, knowing your dependency status will help you prepare the information you need to provide. When in doubt, you can contact an independent counselor, the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC), or your individual school’s financial aid center to clarify your status.

3. Collect all required information and documents

Before starting work on your FAFSA, ensure you have all the necessary information accessible. The materials you’ll need will vary based on your dependency and citizenship status. You can use the following checklists to help prep the required information.

U.S. citizen / Dependent student

  • Student’s Social Security card (U.S. citizens only)
  • Student’s driver’s license (if you have one)
  • Student’s most recent W-2 forms (if applicable)
  • Student’s most recent federal income tax return (if applicable)
  • Student’s 2022 untaxed income records (if applicable)
  • Student’s current bank statements
  • Parents’ most recent federal income tax return
  • Parents’ most recent W-2 forms
  • Parents’ bank statements
  • Parents’ untaxed income records
  • Parents’ current business and investment records

U.S. citizen / Independent student

  • Student’s Social Security card (U.S. citizens only)
  • Student’s driver’s license (if you have one)
  • Student’s most recent W-2 forms
  • Student’s most recent federal income tax return
  • Student’s 2022 untaxed income records
  • Student’s current bank statements

Moving forward for the 2024-2025 school year and beyond, the U.S. federal government has removed access to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool due to the FUTURE Act and FAFSA Simplification Act.

4. Start your FAFSA application early

The FAFSA for the upcoming academic year typically becomes available in October, although for the 2024-2025 academic year, the release was delayed until December 31, 2023, due to significant changes to the application. For the 2025-2026 application, it should go back to being available on October 1st.

Students can start filling out their FAFSA once it’s available for their desired academic year. For new students, it is important to note that it can take 1-3 days for the FSA ID, or login information, to be verified after creation. The application allows students to save their progress to work on it in sections, if necessary. Students can request that their FAFSA be sent to schools even if they still need to submit an application or be accepted. Students can add up to 20 schools to the application at a time, and they can return to the application and add schools if needed.

Although the federal deadline for completing the FAFSA is typically in June before the start of the new academic year, most schools and states have their own deadlines, which students must keep in mind. Students should verify FAFSA deadlines with their school and apply in time to be considered for the maximum amount of financial aid available. Remember that it typically takes 3-5 business days for a FAFSA to be processed. Additionally, the first batch of data for the 2024-2025 FAFSA application will be released to individual colleges by March 2024.

5. Review all information before submitting

Before clicking “submit,” take a moment to carefully review your application and confirm that you’ve answered all required questions and entered all information correctly, including verifying Social Security Numbers, name spellings, and all required electronic signatures.

After submitting their FAFSA, students can check its status through the FAFSA website. If the status is “Missing Signatures” or “Action Required,” then a student must address these issues before your FAFSA application can proceed.

While there are ways for students to make corrections, inaccuracies or missing information on the FAFSA can delay an application’s processing, which delays financial aid award notifications. Some changes or modifications can be made directly to your application by logging into your FAFSA account. In other cases, students must contact their school’s financial aid office.

6. Ask for help if needed

Although the FAFSA is a fairly straightforward application, it’s common for students to have questions or need assistance based on their circumstances.

The best place for students to get help with their FAFSA is their school’s financial aid office, which has financial aid counselors trained in the various nuances of the FAFSA. Even if you still need to apply or be admitted to a school, you can usually contact their financial aid office with general questions. Because errors or incomplete information can slow down the processing of your FAFSA, it’s always a good idea to ask for help if you’re unsure how to answer a question or what information to provide.

However, students and families should be on the lookout for individuals or organizations asking for a fee to submit the FAFSA, as it may be a scam. There is never a fee to access and submit the FAFSA.

Submit a new FAFSA every year

Because the Federal Student Aid program uses federal income tax information to determine financial aid eligibility, students must update their FAFSA each year they want to be considered for federal aid.

Students and their parents will use their same FSA ID to access their FAFSA each year. Most information will repopulate from year to year. However, students can update any information that may have changed in the past year, such as permanent address, telephone number, or marital status. Students and their parents can import their income tax information for the prior year or enter it manually to update.

Tips for Repaying Student Loans

Completing and submitting the FAFSA is just the first step in borrowing and repaying student loans. Here are some best practices to help students and their families manage their educational debt.

  • Only borrow what you need: Schools use the information from the FAFSA to create a financial aid package for students, including the maximum amount of federal student loans they can borrow. However, students can borrow less than that amount if they have other non-loan ways of covering their tuition and expenses. Because loans must be repaid with interest, it’s a good idea to borrow the least amount of money possible.
  • Start repaying loans as soon as possible: Students don’t have to wait until they graduate to begin repaying their loans. When loan funds are disbursed, students or their families can start making payments toward their principal balance. Doing so is helpful, as the lower the principal, the lower the interest and overall payments will be.
  • Use employer tuition assistance benefits: Students working while enrolled in a college degree program should determine if their employer offers tuition assistance or reimbursement benefits. Policies vary by employer, but in most cases, companies reimburse employees for some or all of their tuition costs after completing individual courses or their degrees. Students can use these funds to reimburse themselves if they paid out-of-pocket for classes or to pay off any loans they borrowed to cover tuition.

Learn More About Financial Aid

Need additional guidance for completing your FAFSA and borrowing money to pay for college? Check out these other resources:

Interested in a degree instead?

Learn more about online degrees, their start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.