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The Short Answer

Students, Here's How to Make the FAFSA Application as Easy as Possible

Tips from a prior first-generation student.

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (known as FAFSA) is a no-brainer when applying for college. It's how students can access funds to afford school. The application is lengthy, but FAFSA's website claims most applicants can complete it in less than an hour

However, some applicants will need much more time than that. This might be some students' first encounter with financial aid terminology, which can create delays as they first have to determine what is being asked for, and then track down the information. Parents might also not know the answers. 

Filling out the FAFSA can be anxiety-provoking, and I can relate, having been a first-generation college student navigating the process largely on my own. Whether you’re a student trying to learn more, or a parent struggling to find help, know that the application process can be manageable with some organization and planning. 

Let’s break down how to get through it as seamlessly as possible.

Step 1: Gather necessary documents 
You’ll need information from a few key personal documents to fill out the FAFSA. Gathering all the necessary information first minimizes roadblocks later. Here’s what you’ll probably need:

  • Social Security number: If you don't know it, ask your parents because they likely have it. If not, call the Social Security office at +1 800 772-1213 to discuss options for retrieving your number. Get this number as soon as possible (and don’t share it with anyone!).
  • Driver’s license: If you don’t have one, you don’t need it. 
  • Tax return: Financial aid applicants for 2020-21 need their 2018 income tax return (filed in April 2019). You can also use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which scrapes this relevant information directly from the IRS data base into your FAFSA.
  • Bank account statements: FAFSA will ask for the total in checking and savings accounts, so have your bank login and password ready. 
  • FSA ID: This is a requirement but not a document. Create one by registering on FAFSA’s website

There are a few other pieces of information you might need that are less common.

  • Alien Registration Number: This is only needed if you’re an eligible noncitizen. If you or your parents were born in the U.S., you very likely don’t need (or have) this. 
  • Records of investments: This refers to accounts for buying and selling assets like stocks. If you don’t know if you have an investment account, double-check with your parents. If you have one, you’ll need to know the value of these accounts. 
  • Records of untaxed income: This is income you’ve earned that isn’t taxable. You’ll need to enter the amount.  

Step 2: Determine your dependency status
Your dependency status is whether you’re a dependent or independent student (most students are dependent). This checklist will clarify which you are. 

Dependent students are assumed to have the financial support of their families, so they need to report their parents’ information along with their own, in order to get a full picture of the family’s financial strength and determine the Expected Family Contribution. Go through the list with your parents, and make sure you have all their info handy when you fill out the FAFSA. 

If you’re dependent, you must determine whether one or both parents should report information. If they are married and/or live together, both will, but if your situation is more complicated, here’s some guidance

Step 3: Apply ASAP 
The 2020-21 FAFSA opened Oct. 1, 2019, and closes June 30, 2021, for federal aid. But the deadline for state or college financial aid can be earlier, so once you have your documents, apply immediately to maximize the awards you can receive. 

Another benefit to starting in October is some peace of mind. You might run into trouble tracking down your Social Security number or a parent’s tax return, for instance. If you start early, you have a cushion to address road bumps while still submitting your application early.

Step 4: Use resources if you’re stuck
The Federal Student Aid Office and broader Department of Education provide numerous resources to make the process as easy as possible. They exist to help you, so take advantage of them.

  • If you’re a visual learner, check out this graphic.
  • You can file for the 2020-21 FAFSA via the myStudentAid app on iPhone and Android.  
  • This FAFSA page fleshes out many of the topics we’ve discussed.  
  • This PDF contains each question asked on the 2019-20 FAFSA and what appears if you click the help box that appears on each question.
  • This page addresses many frequently asked questions. 
  • This post by the Department of Education contains common FAFSA mistakes. 
  • This resources page allows you to filter for what you’re seeking.  

And the most important resource: If you can’t find the answer to a question, the Federal Student Aid Office has a phone number to help you at +1 800 4-FED-AID. 

Lastly, remember how hard you've fought to secure a spot to attend college, and be proud of your accomplishments. And take advantage of the available resources to make this application as easy as possible. Many people are rooting for you to get the aid that you deserve.