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For many college-bound students, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a key step in the preparation process. But what exactly is the FAFSA, and why does it play such an important role in the financial aid process?

This ultimate FAFSA guide answers those questions and more. With insight from college counselor Dana Marvin, we crafted a step-by-step guide to completing the FAFSA, including guidance for answering questions about family structure and immigration status. Marvin also offers advice for how to accept or appeal your financial aid offers, what to do if your application is rejected, and how to be savvy about borrowing and repaying student loans.

What is the FAFSA?

If you’re planning on borrowing money to pay for your higher education, now is a good time to add “complete the FAFSA” to your to-do list.

The FAFSA is a free application that is used by federal, state, and local government agencies, as well as colleges and organizations, to determine eligibility for student loans, grants, work-study positions, scholarships, and more.

The key requirements to qualify for financial aid through the FAFSA are:

  • Be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or eligible noncitizen
  • Have a valid Social Security number
  • Demonstrate financial need (requirements may vary)
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress
  • Be currently enrolled in or plan to enroll in an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Have a high school diploma or recognized equivalent (such as a GED diploma or homeschooling certificate)

Undocumented students and international students are not eligible for federal student loans through the FAFSA.

“All of the information that’s collected through the FAFSA is sent directly to the colleges the student includes in their application,” Marvin says. “Schools then use this information to determine how much financial aid they’re going to offer you. Some colleges have other applications for financial aid that students also need to submit, but the FAFSA is universal for the majority of US colleges and universities.”

The information that the FAFSA collects includes both student demographic information as well as federal income tax information for students and their parents (if the student is a dependent) or students and their spouses, if applicable (if the student is independent).

“Without this information, it can be very hard for colleges to calculate how much, if any, need-based aid they can offer you,” Marvin says.

While financial aid can come from a variety of sources, the U.S. Department of Education’s federal student loan program is a key source of funding for millions of college students every year. For both undergraduate and graduate students, there are multiple types of financial aid available.

Loan Type About Eligible Students Maximum Amount Repayment Info
Direct Subsidized Loans Need-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 6 months after students graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment; multiple repayment options available
Direct Unsubsidized Loans Need-based loans; students are responsible for paying interest during all periods Undergraduate Graduate Undergraduate – $34,500 total

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

Repayment begins 6 months after students graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment; multiple repayment options available
Parent PLUS Loan Available to biological or adoptive (and in some cases stepparents) of dependent undergraduate student enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school Undergraduate The maximum PLUS loan amount parents can borrow is the cost of attendance at the school their child will attend minus any other financial assistance received Repayment begins as soon as loan is disbursed, unless a deferment is requested
Grad PLUS Loan Available to graduate or professional student enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school in a program leading to a graduate or professional degree or certificate Graduate Varies; the maximum PLUS loan amount students can borrow is the cost of attendance (determined by the school) minus any other financial assistance received Repayment begins 6 months after students graduate, leave school, or drop below half-time enrollment
Pell Grant Students must display exceptional financial need and haven’t yet earned a bachelor’s, graduate or professional degree Undergraduate $7,395 (2023-24 academic year) Doesn’t have to be repaid (except in certain circumstances)
TEACH Grant Provides grants to students who are completing or plan to complete course work needed to begin a career in teaching Undergraduate


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


Varies; students are paid at least the federal minimum wage Doesn’t need to be repaid

How to Complete Your FAFSA Application: A Step-By-Step Guide

The FAFSA is available at There’s no fee to complete and submit the FAFSA. (Do not complete any form that claims to be the FAFSA but asks for a fee to submit or process the application.)

The application typically becomes available in the fall for the following academic year. Due to changes being made to the FAFSA, the application for the 2024-25 academic year will be available in December 2023.

The deadline to complete the FAFSA is typically June 30 of the current academic year. For example, the deadline for the 2022-23 academic year is June 30, 2023. However, individual colleges set their own deadlines, which are typically far earlier. You can get more information about a school’s FAFSA deadline from their financial aid office. Generally, students and their parents should complete the FAFSA as soon as they have their federal income tax information for the previous year.

“If it’s your first time filling out the FAFSA, I recommend carving out about 90 minutes, although it may not take that long,” Marvin says. You can also save your FAFSA and return to it later, so you don’t have to complete it all at once.

Lastly, Marvin says, “The FAFSA application process can seem daunting and scary, but I promise, it doesn’t have to be!”

Get your FAFSA ID

The FAFSA process begins by creating an account and getting a FAFSA ID. This unique username-password combination will allow you to start, save, and submit your FAFSA. Users must enter basic information including their name, date of birth, email address and Social Security Number to get a FAFSA ID. Note that a user can have only one account associated with their Social Security Number.

Gather the necessary documents

The next step is gathering all of the necessary documents and information you need to complete the FAFSA. The materials needed will vary somewhat based on your dependency and citizenship statuses. You can use the following checklists to help you prep the information you’ll need.

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
  • Student’s most recent federal income tax return
  • Student’s 2021 untaxed income records
  • 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 2021 untaxed income records
  • Student’s current bank statements

Learn how to answer each question

The FAFSA consists of five sections including questions about students and their parents (if students are dependents).

Personal circumstances

In this section, students answer a series of questions regarding their personal life circumstances, including:

  • Marital status
  • College or career school plans, including what their student status will be for the upcoming academic year, and whether they currently hold a bachelor’s degree
  • Military service status
  • Parent/legal guardian information
  • Homeless status

Student demographics

Students will then provide more detailed information about their demographics. The responses to these questions don’t affect a student’s eligibility for financial aid, as this information is collected for research purposes only.

The FAFSA asks students to identify their gender; their race and whether they are of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin; citizenship status; parents’ educational background; student’s high school completion status, and the name of the high school from which they graduated.


Here is where students and their parents, if applicable, will enter income and other financial information that schools will use to calculate the student’s SAI. Independent students will provide their own financial information and that of their spouse, if applicable. Dependent students will provide their own financial information, as well as their parents’ financial information.

Applicants will indicate if they or their families received benefits from federal programs, such as Earned Income Credit (EIC), Medicaid, Federal Housing Assistance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

They will then answer questions about family size, including any changes to family size since the last income tax year, and how many students the family will have in college in the upcoming academic year.

The next set of questions deals with tax return information and assets, including the total amount of money students have in cash, savings, and checking accounts; child support payments, foreign income, investments, and businesses.

For dependent students, parents or guardians will also input the same information.


In this section, students will indicate which schools they want to receive their FAFSA information. Students can select up to 20 schools to receive this information.

There are two ways to search for colleges — by name and location or by the school’s federal code, a unique six-digit number that each FAFSA-eligible school has. You can get a school’s FAFSA code from their website or by contacting their financial aid office.

You can include colleges on your FAFSA even if you haven’t yet applied or been accepted to them. Any colleges that you enter will receive your completed FAFSA form. These schools will use this information to help determine your financial aid award, so it’s important to include all schools that you are considering attending to ensure they have access to your financial information.

You’ll also enter information about your housing plan for each school, as room and board costs will be calculated into the total amount you’ll owe if you’re planning to live in on-campus housing.

Sign and submit

The final section is where you (and your parents, if applicable) will sign and submit your FAFSA. You’ll have a chance to review your whole form and make any necessary corrections or changes.

This is also where you’ll read and agree to the FAFSA’s terms verifying the accuracy of the information you provided. Providing false or incorrect information can result in delays and affect the amount of aid you’re eligible for.

For dependent students, your parents must sign the FAFSA in order for it to be considered complete. Submitting an incomplete FAFSA can also cause delays and affect your financial aid awards.

Family structure

The FAFSA recognizes that there may be situations in which students who are considered dependents may not be able to provide financial information for one or both parents. These circumstances may include:

  • Don’t know the whereabouts of one or both parents
  • An abusive or neglectful parents
  • One or both parents is incarcerated or institutionalized
  • No contact with one or both parents
  • Student is legally emancipated

“In many of these instances, it’s possible to still complete your FAFSA without this information,” Marvin says. “However, additional documentation is usually required.”

If you’re considered a dependent student, you’ll be asked whether you’ll provide information about your parents. If applicable, select “I am unable to provide information about my parent(s).” Although you can submit the FAFSA without this information, your application will be considered incomplete until you’re granted an exception or you provide the required information.

The next step after submitting your incomplete FAFSA is to contact the schools you’re applying to and request a dependency override. Each individual school has its own process and requirements for a dependency override. You can contact the school’s financial aid office to get more specific information.

Generally, the process includes submitting additional documentation to verify the circumstances which prevent you from providing parent financial information. This written evidence can include law enforcement or legal documents, explanatory letters from social workers, counselors or clergy, or other documentation that supports your reasons for not submitting parent financial information.

Immigration status

Citizenship status also plays a role in which students are eligible for financial aid and how they complete the FAFSA.

“Unfortunately, students who are undocumented and don’t have a social security number are unable to apply for financial aid,” Marvin says.”However, depending on what state the student is living in, they may have access to state financial aid. For example, New York State has the Jose Peralta DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students living in and attending school in New York State to receive financial aid directly from the state.”

However, students who have a Social Security number, regardless of their citizenship status, are eligible to submit a FAFSA, even if their parents are undocumented. “In this case, for the parents’ information, a student should enter 000-00-0000 for their parents’ Social Security numbers. This won’t put the parents in any danger or flag anything on the student’s application.” However, students in this situation should contact their school directly to find out if they have any specific protocols for students in this situation.

Submitted Your Application? What to Do Next

After you submit your FAFSA, you can check the status at any time by logging into your FAFSA account. It typically takes 3-5 business days for a FAFSA to be processed; during this period, your status will be “Processing.”

If your status is “Processed Successfully,” no further action is required on your part. Your application has been processed and sent to your selected schools, which will begin working on your financial aid package.

A “Missing Signatures” status means there are still signatures needed to complete your application. An “Action Required” status means there is an issue, such as missing or incorrect information, that needs to be addressed before your application can be processed. If you’re a dependent student who did not enter parent information, this will be your status until you provide this information or receive a dependency override.

Complete additional financial aid forms if required

Completing and submitting the FAFSA is usually just the first step in the financial aid application process.

“Many states have their own state financial aid applications for students to receive additional aid from the state,” Marvin says.

This includes Texas’ Application for Student Financial Aid (TASFA), California’s CalGrant, and New York’s Tuition Assistance Program. Research state-specific financial aid applications and requirements, and complete them whenever applicable to ensure you’re considered for all financial aid opportunities.

The other application students should complete is the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile, which is administered by the College Board. Schools use this application to award non-federal institutional aid, including scholarships.

“Colleges use the information provided in the CSS Profile to offer as much aid as possible to students if they are accepted to the school,” Marvin says. “If a college requires the CSS profile, it’ll typically be listed on the schools website or students will receive notification to complete it. When in doubt, students can check the CSS database to determine whether they need to complete the application.”

Review your Student Aid Report

“Once your FAFSA is submitted, students should review and download their Student Aid Report (SAR),” Marvin says. “This is a report created from the FAFSA that breaks down the student’s Student Aid Index (SAI) and their estimated aid from the federal government.”

While the SAR is not a final decision on how much financial aid a student is eligible for or will receive, it is a planning tool that students and families can use to begin making financial-related decisions about which college will be most affordable to attend.

Correct/update your FAFSA if necessary

Perhaps you realize after submitting your FAFSA that you made a mistake, or your college plans change and you want your FAFSA sent to additional schools.

The easiest way to correct or update your FAFSA is to log into your account, select the “Make Corrections” option, and follow the instructions to make the necessary changes. Saving these changes will automatically update your FAFSA.

The other option is to request a paper Student Aid Report from the Federal Student Aid Information Center, make changes on the hard copy document, sign it, and mail it back. This process will take longer, and may lead to processing delays with your application.

How to contact the FAFSA information board

If you have questions or concerns about your FAFSA, there are multiple ways to get answers and assistance. has robust resources covering topics related to the FAFSA and federal student aid program. You can also contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center directly by phone, email, or live chat.

Your school’s financial aid office is also a helpful resource if you have questions about your financial aid award or application status.

What to do if you’re selected for verification

You may receive notification with your SAR or from your school that your FAFSA has been selected for verification.

This doesn’t mean that there’s an issue with your FAFSA or that you did anything wrong when completing the application. Verification is a process by which schools confirm that the data reported on students’ FAFSAs is accurate. Students complete the verification process by providing additional documentation to support the information provided on the application.

Some schools select students for verification at random, while others verify all FAFSAs. If you have questions or concerns about being selected for verification, contact your school’s financial aid office.

What If Your Application is Rejected?

“A student’s FAFSA may be rejected for a few different reasons,” Marvin says. “Most of these are related to missing or incorrect information that prevents the application from being processed.”

Some common mistakes that will lead to a rejected application include:

  • Misspelled names
  • Wrong Social Security number (for students or parents)
  • Wrong date of birth (for students or parents)
  • Other missing information, including parent financial information
  • Missing signatures

“The good news is that students can go back to their FAFSA or SAR to make corrections and resubmit their application,” Marvin says.

Mistakes can delay the processing of your FAFSA, so if you receive notification that your FAFSA was rejected, it’s important to make any necessary corrections or updates as soon as possible. If you are unsure what is wrong with the application or how to fix it, you can contact the FAFSA hotline at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).

Review Your Financial Aid Package

Once all of your applications and information have been submitted and verified, your school’s financial aid office will create a financial aid package for you. The financial aid award process varies from school to school, but a typical financial aid package includes federal and state student loans and grants, work-study, and institutional aid like scholarships and grants.

Schools generally send students their financial aid award information with their admissions offer, or soon after. It’s important to have this information before selecting the school you’ll attend, so you can make an informed, realistic financial decision about college.

If your financial aid offer doesn’t meet your financial needs, you can appeal your aid decision to your college.

“To appeal a financial aid offer with a college, it’s good practice to first Google the school to see if they have any specific requirements for appeal letters,” Marvin says. “If not, write an appeal letter to the college, requesting your financial aid package be reviewed to see if they can add any additional aid.”

While there’s no guarantee a school will be able to add more aid to your package, colleges cannot and will not rescind an admissions offer to a student for appealing their financial aid decision. Says Marvin, “the worst case scenario with an appeal is that a college won’t be able to offer additional aid.”

On the other hand, if you’re offered more aid than you need, it’s important to remember that you’re not obligated to accept any or all of the financial aid a school offers you. This is crucial when it comes to loans, Marvin says.

“If you’re borrowing money for school, take out what you need and nothing more,” she says. “For example, if you’re offered a loan for $12,500 per year but you only need $8,000 to cover costs, there’s no need to take out the full $12,500. Remember, every dollar you take out in a loan will not only be paid back, but with interest.”

Marvin also recommends students and their families explore all funding avenues outside of loans before committing to borrowing money to pay for school. “This includes scholarships, both from the school and outside organizations, as well as state and federal grants. This ‘free money’ can either lower the total loan amount a student needs to borrow, or best case scenario it will completely cover the cost!”

If you are borrowing federal student loans to pay for your education, you (and your parents, if applicable) will accept this loan by signing a Master Promissory Note (MPN), which is a legal document explaining the terms and conditions of the loan, and confirming that you’ll pay back the full amount of the loan plus any accrued interest and fees.

Renewing Your FAFSA Every Year

In order to continue receiving financial aid, students and their families must submit a new FAFSA every year for as long as the student is in school. This is to ensure that schools are using the most up-to-date information when determining how much financial aid to offer students for the upcoming academic year. The good news is, the application process typically gets easier as you and your family get more familiar with it year after year.

Federal and state student loans are typically disbursed at the start of the academic term. While repayment terms state that students don’t have to start paying back their loans until after they’ve graduated or left their program, Marvin encourages students and families to get a jump on repayment whenever possible.

“You can begin paying off your loans as soon as the money’s disbursed,” she says. “Let’s say you make an extra few hundred dollars during a summer job, or your parents get a big bonus from work. You can use that money to start paying off your loans while you’re still in school. Even paying off a few hundred or thousand dollars before finishing school can make a huge difference to those loan amounts post-grad.”

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