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A Step-by-Step Guide for the First-Time FAFSA Applicant

So you’ve probably heard you should fill out the FAFSA...but what exactly is it? The acronym FAFSA stands for “free application for federal student aid.”

This application considers you for need-based scholarships and grants for college. It’s also necessary if you wish to take advantage of federal student loans to fund your college education. The FAFSA can definitely be your friend when it comes to paying for college!

Between applications for admission, scholarships, and the FAFSA, you probably feel like your whole life is just a series of applications at this point. This too shall pass, we promise. In order to make the FAFSA application as painless as possible, we have broken it down, step-by-step. The FAFSA opens on October 1st of each year for the following school year, so mark your calendars or set a reminder in your phone. There are certain funds that do run out, so the earlier you complete this, the better; in this case, procrastination can cost you (literally). Feeling super ambitious? You can complete steps 1 and 2 BEFORE the FAFSA even opens!

Step 1: Create an FSA ID.

Your FSA ID is the username and password you will create to access certain Department of Education websites. It will also help verify your identity and serve as your digital signature for your FAFSA. If you are a dependent student (more on that here), then your parent will need to create an FSA ID as well.

Step 2: Gather important documents.

It may seem like the FAFSA is super nosy with all of the info they request from you, but it’s all crucial in determining the aid you are eligible for. You’ll need to dig in the archives for the following:

-Your Social Security Number (check and double check this information, this is the number one reason colleges can’t track down your FAFSA)

-Your Parents’ Social Security Numbers (if you’re a dependent student)

-Your Driver’s License Number (if applicable)

-Alien Registration Number (if applicable)

-Federal Tax Information/Tax Returns including W-2 information for you, your spouse (if applicable) and your parents (if you’re a dependent) from two years prior (i.e. 2018-2019 school year will use 2016 tax info)

-Records of Untaxed Income (i.e. interest income, child support, Veteran non-education benefits, if applicable)

-Info on cash, savings and checking account balances, any investments you’ve made, i.e. stocks, bonds and real estate (excluding your primary residence), business and farm assets – for you or your parents (if you’re a dependent)

Once you’ve input all of this information into the FAFSA, be sure to keep these documents in a safe, but easily accessible location. There’s about a 20% chance your application will be chosen for verification. You will then have to provide your college with certain documentation to ensure all information you reported on the FAFSA is correct. You can be selected for verification completely at random or because something on your FAFSA doesn’t quite match up. Either way, your college will notify you if you’ve been selected and what documentation is needed.

Step 3: Starting the FAFSA.

Now that your FSA ID is created, you’ve tracked down all of your documents, and October 1st is here, it’s time to start your FAFSA! Head on over to fafsa.ed.gov and click “start a new FAFSA.” Be sure to use ONLY fafsa.ed.gov. Unfortunately, there are scammy websites out there that are named and look very similar to the real website that will charge a fee for filing your FAFSA. You should NEVER pay to file your FAFSA! Once you’ve started a new application, you’ll have the opportunity to create a save key, make sure you don’t skip this step. You probs won’t complete your FAFSA in one sitting, so this allows you to save your work and return where you left off, even across devices.

Step 4: Evaluating your dependency status.

There is a laundry list of questions the FAFSA will ask to determine dependency status. You can read more about those questions here. Generally speaking if you are under the age of 24 and unmarried, and not a member of the military, you will be considered a dependent student for FAFSA purposes. If you are classified as a dependent and feel as if you have an extenuating circumstance, I’d recommend connecting with your college financial aid office regarding your individual situation.

Step 5: Input Financial Information.

This section is where you input all of your tax and financial information. In the previous step, if it was determined that you are a dependent student, you will input your parents info as well. Pro tip: if you are given the option to use the “IRS data retrieval tool,” do it! This allows your tax return to automatically sync with your FAFSA. This makes your life way easier and decreases your likelihood of being selected for verification.

Step 6: Selecting FAFSA Recipients.

The FAFSA requires you to provide a list of 1-10 schools you’d like your FAFSA results sent to. These colleges will then use your FAFSA to determine both the type and amount of aid they’ll offer you upon acceptance. You will always be able to add schools later, but some schools do create financial aid packages on a rolling basis so the sooner your FAFSA is on file, the sooner your package will be created upon acceptance.

Step 7: Signing and Submitting the FAFSA.

One last thing… you must sign your FAFSA application using your FSA ID and hit “submit.” You’ll know you’ve successfully submitted your FAFSA once you’ve seen the confirmation page. You will also get an email confirmation of your submission. If you happen to have a sibling in college who is also considered a dependent, this confirmation page will allow you the option of transferring your parents info to your siblings’ FAFSA as well. Yay for efficiency!

Still not entirely sure that you should fill out the FAFSA? Check out our article Dispelling Common FAFSA Myths to give you some more FAFSA insight. If you’re ever stuck on anything FAFSA related, check out our financial aid advice section, the Federal Student Aid YouTube channel, or seek help from your high school counselor or your college admissions counselor. Good luck!


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