The Ultimate Guide to the FAFSA

by Allie Heemstra updated January 23, 2017

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."

Our founding father, Benjamin Franklin said those famous words about getting a higher education, but when the total student debt in our nation is $1.2 trillion dollars, the burden of that investment starts to feel more than a little daunting.

If you are a senior in high school, have a child about to go to college, or are considering going back to school, it’s likely that the cost of getting a degree is weighing heavily on your mind. According to the College Board, it cost an average of $9,410 annually to go to a public university in-state and a whopping $32,405 for private colleges!

FAFSA: What Is it, and Why Is it so Important?

What’s a future student to do? Even with all of those statistics, you know that going to college or receiving a higher education opens up so many opportunities, and it’s an experience you don’t want to pass up. So how do you get the degree you need without digging yourself into a hole of debt? Financial aid! More than 85% of undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid that relieves some of the burden of that college education price tag. There is money being offered to you, free for the taking! How do you access this “free money?” Like most things in life, you have to know where to find it, and you’ll have to do some work to find it. Think of it like a board game. It may seem like your chances for success are left to random chance, and half-way through the game, it feels like you’re giving away all of your money and losing value quickly. But if you know the right strategies and which things to avoid, you can receive the money you need to get ahead while getting your degree! Think of this ultimate guide as a way to help you learn how to “game the system” so to speak to get your hands on the financial aid you deserve!

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is arguably the most important step to knocking down that college price. The Federal Student Aid, which is a part of the United States Department of Education handles these applications and determine what financial aid you are eligible for.

This application, with around 100 questions can be filled out in as little as 30 minutes. It's your key to getting free money to go towards all of the costs of getting a college education! If you’re looking to do things the easy way, which of course you are, you’ll want to fill it out online at Not only does the online application have built-in help to guide you through the questions, but it also has “skip logic” that allows you to skip over questions that don’t apply to you.

Besides college applications, the FAFSA is one of the most important documents that you fill out on your road to getting a higher education. If you are hoping to have help in some form for paying for college, you have to fill it out. The Department of Education awards over $150 billion a year. And in addition to federal help, state programs and individual colleges also use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for their own financial aid packets! So come on, let’s do this together!

Who Handles the FAFSA Information?

As you fill out the FAFSA, you are giving personal information, including your financial records. It’s understandable that you may be wary about handing this information out! However, the office of Federal Student Aid has over 1,200 employees that work to help make college possible for over 13 million students each year, and they use the highest level of encryption on their website to ensure that your information is received safely and kept secure.

After you complete your application, a FAFSA processor looks at the data you’ve provided and creates a Student Aid Report, or SAR. This information is shared with you, as well as any schools that you listed on your application as places you’re considering to attend.

The COA: How Much is This Going to Cost?

One of the first questions to consider is the actual price tag for the degree you want to get. Exactly how much moola will you have to part with? This total, the cost of attendance, or COA can vary widely, based on a number of factors:

Tuition: Are you hoping to go to a public university or do you have your eyes set on a private college? Will you stay in your home state, or are you thinking of venturing a bit farther? All of these decisions can affect the actual amount you will spend for each semester’s tuition. The average cost of tuition is $9,410 for in-state public universities, $23,893 for out-of-state public universities, and $32,405 for private colleges.

Learning Tools: The cost of education doesn’t stop at tuition. You’ll need to factor in the cost of textbooks, school supplies, and learning resources specific to your course of study. Not to mention a personal computer or laptop. You should anticipate spending at least $1,200 per year on books and supplies. But don’t forget to try used books or check online for equipment and supplies used by the previous semester’s students.

Living Expenses: Many people choose to live on campus. While worthwhile for the connection to campus activities and groups as well as the short walks to class, it doesn’t necessarily come cheap. Room and board can cost nearly as much as tuition itself. Room and board at public universities have an average price tag of $10,138, and prices are slightly higher at private schools. Even if you live off campus, you’ll need to consider the cost of rent, plus traveling expenses and campus parking when determining the overall cost.

Special Services: For students with disabilities or special needs, expenses like personal assistance, equipment, and transportation needs should be factored into the total cost as well.

Childcare: If you are a parent, you’ll need to add in an estimate for the cost of childcare - at least for the hours you’ll be in class. Extra Learning Experiences: Are you interested in studying abroad during your college years? Or getting an internship in another city? Opportunities offered outside of the classroom can be an enriching experience; just don’t forget to factor them in.

The Federal Student Aid office will take the information you give them on the FAFSA, the average COA of the specific colleges you’ve chosen and weigh that against your Estimated Family Contribution to determine what they consider to be your financial need. It is a good idea to run these numbers on your own as well, to get a plan in place to pay for your expected needs and unique situation. You can get a preview of how much federal financial aid you’ll qualify for on the FAFSA site.

All help is good help, right? If you are considering the steep price of college, you are probably eager to receive any and all financial aid that is offered to you. It’s important to be aware of the different kinds of aid and what that is going to mean for you in the long run. Here is a description of the different kinds of financial aid that you may have available. Knowing the pros and cons of these different types of help can help you make the best choice for you!


We’ll start with the cream of the financial aid crop! Grants really are free money because you don’t have to pay them back. Some are based on student need. If you are part of minority people group or have unique challenges facing you as you seek a higher education, you may qualify for a grant. If you are coming from a situation with a lack of resources, you’ll be more likely to qualify for grants. Grants can be given by federal and state governments, as well as institutions. And don’t forget about the merit-based grants


Pell Grants: These federal grants are given to undergraduate students with high financial need. All eligible students can receive Pell Grants, and money is given based on each individual’s need and the cost of the college they attend. Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG): If you qualify for this grant, chances are you have an exceptional financial need. The financial aid office of participating schools handles these directly. These are given on a first-come-first-served basis. Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants: You may qualify for this grant if your parent or guardian passed away while on active duty, serving in the Iraq or Afghanistan war.


Grants are free money, which is a no-brainer! Someone else gets to feel good about helping you get ahead in life!


Competition is fierce for most of these grants, and funds are limited. Your likelihood of getting a grant is less than other forms of financial aid. Some grants require that you maintain a certain GPA to qualify.


Scholarships are also free money going toward your education. These are awarded by private organizations or institutions that want to support the higher education of a specific demographic. There might be scholarships awarded based on merit, pursuing a specific major, going to a specific school, or based on an individual’s unique situation. Most scholarships require the applicant to write an essay or demonstrate the qualities being highlighted by the benefactor. Check out our scholarship filtering tool to see if there are any awards that you might qualify for today.


Athletic Scholarships: Student-athletes may receive a scholarship as an incentive to join their sports team. Maintaining a certain GPA, along with other requirements are expected to maintain the scholarship.

Academic Scholarships: If you show excellence in a specific academic area, or are an all-around strong student, you may qualify for academic scholarships. Organizations and programs want to help foster your excellence in the academic world.

Diversity Scholarships: Many organizations want to encourage people from all walks of life to go to college. If you are a part of a diverse background or an ethnic minority group, you can apply for scholarships that are catered to your identity. As a technology company, we see firsthand the shortage of female engineering talent and the shortage of women in technology, which is why we established this scholarship search tool.


Again, why would you say no to free money?! A wide variety of scholarships being offered. Chances are you can find a couple that caters to the specific ways you stand out from the crowd. There’s no limit to how many you can apply for!


No one is going to knock on your door with a giant check. You’re going to have to work to get this money, with research, writing essays, and meeting the expectation of the application. Many scholarships have requirements that you maintain a certain GPA or fulfill the expectations of the organization giving you the money.

Federal Loans

Chances are that you’ll be expected to pay for most of your college education in some way. But there’s good news. You probably won’t be asked to pay for all of it up front. You can utilize loans to help defer the cost until you have that job that’s waiting for you after you graduate! If you have a greater financial need, you may qualify for a federal loan, which may have better terms than other loans. They are funded with government money and don’t require a credit check.


Perkins Loans: These are the most desirable types of loans as they have a fixed interest rate of 5%. These loans are also subsidized, meaning that you won’t have to start paying that five percent interest rate until after you graduate. You have to demonstrate a higher financial need in order to qualify for these loans.

Stafford Loans: Anyone can qualify for these loans, and payments can be deferred until a few months after you graduate, just like Perkins Loans. However, these loans have a slightly higher interest rate, around 6.8%. These loans may be subsidized like Perkins loans, meaning that you won’t be responsible for paying interest during your years in college. However, if you have less financial need, the Stafford Loan you are offered may be unsubsidized.

PLUS Loans: If you are a graduate or professional student or a parent of a dependent undergraduate student, you may be eligible for a PLUS loan. While other student loans must only go towards tuition and school costs, the money from PLUS Loans can be used to help cover other expenses.


It’s much easier to qualify for a loan. Many people are willing to lend you money, especially as a student. No pressure to pay for things up front. You don’t have to pay the loan principal back while you’re a student. These are some of the best loans out there, with lower than average interest rates.


Starting off your adult life with debt is less than ideal. You are financially responsible for the cost of your education.

Private Loans

Federal Loans may help bridge the gap for some of your cost, but that might not be enough. If you need additional help, you may consider a private loan from a bank or other lender. Separate from the eligibility requirements on the FAFSA, your eligibility will depend on your credit score. As these loans typically have higher interest rates, getting additional loans should be seen as a last resort.


These loans can help you with a wider variety of the costs that may go into your college years. You don’t have to meet the same requirements for financial need or be from a specific minority group in order to receive these types of loans.


You’ll have to demonstrate that you have good credit or provide collateral to receive a private loan. It’s likely that the interest you pay on your loan will be higher than federally funded loans. Debt is kind of the worst.

Work Study

Some financial aid can be beneficial to more than just you. A work study program connects you to federally funded jobs. Often on campus or at approved locations, you can help cover some of the cost of your tuition in exchange for some good old fashioned manual labor. Each university or college handles these programs differently, but this might be something to look into.


Dining Center: A portion of the positions needed to run the campus dining center might be designated for work study programs. This is also a good way to work shifts that accommodate your class schedule.

Athletic Departments: Do you have an abundance of team spirit for your university’s sports teams? Perhaps you can work at the concessions or clean up the arena for your work study program! Some universities also have paid marketing internships to help advertise your school’s athletic teams and events.

Residence Halls: There are a lot of components that go into helping residence halls run smoothly on campus. Some work study programs may extend to these different aspects of on-campus life, from maintenance and custodial tasks to becoming a resident assistant.


There is an undeniable satisfaction in working for the money you’re receiving. Working on campus is a great way to network, build your resume, and build lasting friendships!


This will add another layer of responsibility and time management to your life as a student. The pay for work study programs can vary widely, and some may not pay enough to make a big difference in the overall cost of your degree.

What About Me? Eligibility For Specific Groups

The road to getting a college degree can be challenging for many people, but there are specific demographics that face unique challenges. Financial aid is focused on helping support everyone’s right to a higher education. There are a wide variety of grants, scholarships, and other financial aid that is set aside for people to whom college is not a given.

Minority Students

Historically, the campuses of higher education were mostly filled with caucasian men of privilege. While there have been efforts made to bridge the gap for all people to access higher education, the statistics still show that getting a college degree is not simple for different minority groups within our country. While these systemic issues are not fixed overnight, there are efforts being made, both by organizations and initiatives at the federal level to help increase the opportunities for minority students to go to college. Don’t let language barriers get in the way of getting financial aid! The office of student aid offers a completely Spanish version of the FAFSA on their website, as well as articles written in Spanish to offer advice and support for the college application process. Lots of universities see the immense value of diversity and offer scholarships for minority students who choose their school. Look here for’s guide to the most diverse schools in the U.S. Many private organizations, such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, and Southwest Airlines offer scholarships specifically for minority students.

Students with Disabilities

If you live with a disability of some kind, you are accustomed to overcoming challenges on a daily basis. Seeking a college education is no different! As you research the programs you are interested in, and the schools you may attend, you’ll want to look into the resources available to you to accomplish your goals. Financial aid is available to you to help make this happen!

There are specific grants and scholarships available to help make college possible for students with a variety of disabilities, such as the Foundation for Science and Disability Science Student Grant Fund or the NBCUniversal Tony Coelho Media Scholarship. Starting at the age of 18, you may qualify for Social Security Income or a Plan for Achieving Self Support. A PASS allows someone with a disability to set aside income and resources towards a specific vocational goal (such as college tuition) and still receive SSI payments. However, be aware that earnings from employment may affect SSI benefits. To learn more about these programs, visit

Military Students

If you have served in the military, or are currently on active duty in some capacity, you have access to a lot of resources to help you pay for college. There have been several initiatives to help hard working service members earn their degree. You should take advantage of the education benefits and resources that are available to you! As a veteran, you have access to the GI Bill, which can go towards paying for your school. A variety of education programs through the Veterans Affair organization aids this, including the Post-9/11 GI Bill, The Montgomery GI Bill for Active Duty and Veterans (MGIB-AD), Montgomery GI Bill for Selected Reserves (MGIB-SR), the Fry Scholarship, the Spouse and Dependents Education Assistance (DEA), and the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program. While in the service, you can receive Tuition Assistance--up to $4,500 a year! The money is paid to the school. According to, there are over one thousand scholarships and grants reserved for military personnel or family members of veterans, such as the AFAS General Henry H. Arnold Education Grant Program, the Freedom Alliance Scholarship Fund, or the Wings Over America Scholarships

Get Your Act Together: Getting Organized Beforehand

So at this point, you’re probably feeling the urgency to fill out the FAFSA and get it over with! The sooner you fill it out, the better, as some financial aid is given out on a first come-first served basis! It is a major step to check off of your college preparation to-do list.

The good news is that the Federal Student Aid Office has been working to improve and streamline the process, making it easier than ever to get the help you need. It takes people an average of 30 minutes to fill out. Think about it: in the time it takes to watch an episode of The Big Bang Theory, you could be on your way to getting free money to go towards your college education!

Before you sit down to fill out the FAFSA, you’ll want to have some important information handy. Here is a checklist of what you’ll need to have:

Personal Information:
  • Your Social Security number
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers (if you are a dependent)
  • Your driver’s license number (if you have one)
  • Your Alien Registration Number if you are not a U.S. Citizen
  • Federal tax information*
  • IRS W-2 information from the previous year (you and your spouse, if married; your parents if you are dependent)
  • Records of untaxed income, such as child support received, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits, for you, and for your parents if dependent
  • Records of untaxed income, such as child support received, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits, for you, and for your parents if dependent
  • The name of the schools/universities that you want to apply to (You can put up to 10 schools on the list)

*Ready for some more good news? If you’re completing the FAFSA online, some of that tax information can be automatically retrieved from your IRS data! It’s a good idea to have it on hand if you have it. But if organization isn’t your strong suit, you may not have to know the specifics. Hooray for technology making our lives easier!

Breaking Down the FAFSA: A Step by Step Guide

In recent years, the processing of filling out the FAFSA has become much more straightforward. Filling it out online, you’ll also have help if you get confused or aren’t sure what to put for an answer. Sometimes it’s nice to have a preview of what the application entails, though. Here’s a step by step overview of what filling out the FAFSA is all about.

Creating an Account

If this is your first time filling out the FAFSA, you’ll need to begin by creating an FSA ID. You’ll use this username and password every time you log in to fill out or update your FAFSA for your entire college career, so be sure to save this ID information somewhere safe.

Parents will create a separate FSA ID. the Federal Student Aid office reported that one of the most common mistakes that people make is putting in the wrong ID information (a parent logging in with the student ID information or vice versa) so make sure that you keep these separate!

After creating your ID, you can go on to fill out the FAFSA, and get it done in one sitting. That isn’t the case if you’re requesting a new FSA ID, but you’ve filled out the FAFSA before. The verification process, in that case, can take up to three business days.

Logging In

To get started, you’ll go to and click on “Start a New FAFSA.” The FSA recommends that you start the process using the student’s FSA ID, rather than the parent's account, as the process is easier.

From there, you’ll want to choose the FAFSA that you are wanting to fill out.

  • 2017–18 FAFSA if you will be attending college between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018.
  • 2016–17 FAFSA if you will be attending college between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017.
  • Both: If you will be attending college during both time periods and haven’t completed your 2016–17 FAFSA yet, complete that first, wait until it processes (1-3 days), then go back in and complete the 2017–18 FAFSA after.

If this is your first time, you’ll have to enter in more of the information. But guess what? Once you’ve done it once, every other time will be much easier. If you’re renewing, look for the option to complete a “renewal.” When you choose this option, the program will pre-populate a lot of the information based on what you’ve entered in previous years.

After you choose the FAFSA you need to fill out, it will prompt you to create a “Save Key.” This feature is a temporary password, separate from the FSA ID that allows you to save the FAFSA and return to it later. If your parents need to fill in their information separately, the Save Key allows you to “pass” the application back and forth.

Student Demographic Information

Consider this the “Get to Know You” section of the application. You’ll be asked all the basic questions to collect your personal identification information. Be ready to give your name, telephone number, address, social security number, and citizenship status. (If you’re renewing your FAFSA, all of this will be pre-populated!)

School Selection

You can choose up to ten schools that you are interested in attending for college. Even if you haven't applied or haven't been accepted yet, go ahead and list every school you're interested in. Each college you put down will receive your Student Aid Report information, which will help them determine your financial aid options, should you choose that school. Read more on how to to read about how to send your SAR to more than ten schools.

Dependency Status

Part of the formula for determining financial aid is determined by what help you already have access to financially. If you are a certain age, the help you might receive from your parents or guardians is factored into how much assistance you still need. While each person’s situation is unique, applicants fall into one of two categories:

  • Dependent: This doesn’t have to do with whether or not you still have a curfew, but based on guidelines set up by Congress. If you are under the age of 24 (as of December 31 of the current year) chances are you considered a dependent. Basically, this means that your parents’ financial information will be factored in as your financial need is determined. Even if you live on your own, file your own taxes and are independent in every sense of the word, you are still considered a “dependent” in this instance.
  • Independent: If you are older than 24, your financial need will be determined separately from your parent's information. There are other circumstances in which you can be considered independent as well, such as if you:
    • Are Married (or separated)
    • Served or are currently considered active duty in the US Armed Forces
    • Will be entering a master’s or doctoral program in the coming academic year
    • Have dependents (other than a spouse) that receive more than half of their support from you
    • Are an orphan, in foster care, or an emancipated minor

There are other unique circumstances which can override a dependency status, which can be found in the Federal Student Aid Handbook.

Dependency Status

If you answered “no” to all of the questions in the dependency status section, you’re considered to be dependent. This means your parents will have to provide demographic and financial information. (If you are considered “independent” you will skip over this part.)

The processor of your FAFSA will factor your parents’ information to determine the EFC or Expected Family Contribution. In other words, they’ll calculate an estimate of what your family would be able to pitch in to help cover the cost of college. Financial aid would be the amount left over to fill in the gaps that your family cannot. Again, even if your parents are not contributing a single penny to your college fund, their income could still affect your financial aid eligibility. If this becomes a big problem, you can always look into becoming an emancipated minor, therefore classifying yourself as “independent.”

Financial Information

Almost done! The last section of the application requires you to put in your financial information. The processor will use this data to calculate your level of need, given your financial situation. When applying for the 2017 school year, you’ll be asked to give tax information from 2015. This is good news for you because that tax information has already been filed and processed. The online application has an IRS Data Retrieval Tool. With just a few simple clicks, you can access the paperwork that you already have on file with the IRS, and it will put in your information for you. Hooray for technology!

Sign and Submit

All that’s left is to sign your application and submit it! You’ll provide the date that you completed the form and sign it, using your FSA ID. If you’re filing as a dependent, your parent will need to sign the information as well.

You’re done! Give yourself a pat on the back, and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

What NOT To Do: Common Mistakes in Filling Out the FAFSA

The Department of Education has taken strides to make the application process as painless as possible. That being said, there are some mistakes that can be easily avoided. Glance over these common mistakes to make sure that you don’t make them!

DON’T...Miss the deadline.

Many people miss out on money that they would have qualified for because they lose track of time and miss the deadline altogether! Don't make this mistake. Fill the FAFSA out today!


There is a limited amount of money that the Department of Education gives for financial aid. Most of the money is given out on a first-come, first-served basis. Filing late could cost you an opportunity to receive the best possible financial aid plan.

DON’T...Assume you won’t qualify for aid, and not fill it out.

Even if you don’t qualify to receive federal aid, many schools will reserve some of their scholarship money for students who didn’t receive need-based aid. Filling out the FAFSA is the best way to get in the running for that money! And remember, it’s free to fill out, so you have nothing to lose!

DON’T...Mix up the parent and student FSA IDs.

This is one of the most common mistakes made when filling out the FAFSA. Using the wrong ID can cause delays in getting your financial aid. To avoid the headache, make sure that you are only using your id and password. It is recommended to not share your ID or password with anyone, even your parents!

DON’T...Only list one school on your form.

Two-thirds of applicants do this, but the Federal Student Aid office recommends listing any school you are interested in. Even if you haven’t been accepted yet or haven’t applied, it doesn’t do you any harm to just add the school on the form. Remember, you can add up to 10 at a time!

What Happens After I Hit Submit?

Once you’ve submitted your application, it will be analyzed by a processor at the Federal Student Aid office. In three to five business days, you should receive an email with your Student Aid Report (SAR). (If you submit your FAFSA via mail, it can take up to three weeks to hear back from them.)

The SAR is a summary of the information you provided in the application. While it doesn’t give you a specific amount of financial aid you can receive, it will give you an official Expected Family Contribution; the amount estimated that you are expected to pay without financial aid. You can compare that number to the Cost of Attendance for the schools you are considering.

Speaking of those schools, they will also receive a copy of your SAR. As you go through the application process for those specific schools, the financial aid office of that university or college will determine how much federal aid you’ll receive if you attend their school. Those schools will also use that data to determine eligibility for other financial aid packages at the state and university level.

Show Me the Money: How Receiving Your Financial Aid Works

The financial aid staff at the school you choose to attend will be the ones that offer you a specific financial aid package. Most often, schools communicate this through an award letter. It will lay out options for financial aid. You’ll want to accept the financial aid like grants and scholarships, obviously. You’ll need to make some decisions about how much financial aid you want to accept in terms of loans.

This award letter will probably give a deadline in which you can respond with your decision of what package of financial aid you’d like to accept. It will also explain how and when you’ll receive your aid, and whether there are specific requirements that need to be met with the aid. For example, accepting a loan might require you to sign a promissory note and receive a standard entrance counseling course.

So...What Are You Waiting For?

The months leading up to going to college are filled with so many tasks and an increasingly busy schedule. Filling out the FAFSA might feel like just one more complicated item on your large to-do list. But procrastinating on this important document can be a costly mistake...literally. You’re less than 30 minutes away from finding access to affordable college!

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