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  • Amanda Merrifield

The FAFSA: Fear Not!!

Updated: Mar 17

Now that the FAFSA is open (application opened Oct 1!), we highly recommend you fill it out before October is over. We know that sometimes it's tough to know where to start, so let us help you figure it out! Apply here: https://fafsa.ed.gov


What is the FAFSA?

A.K.A. the boring part that you really need to know, though.


The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for U.S. citizens. It calculates which loans and grants to award based on student need. This way, students can benefit from federal loans and grants, such as Pell loans and ACG loans. The FAFSA is regulated and monitored by the U.S. Department of Education.


Who needs to apply?

All y'all need to apply.


Even if you don't THINK you will qualify for aid: APPLY. Even if "need based" aid is not awarded to you, the information gathered by the FAFSA is still important for both merit scholarships and need-based aid directly from universities, depending on the cost of the university and the assessed gap, of course.



If you have more questions, check out this myth-busting list of reasons to fill out the FAFSA.


When do I apply & how long

will the application take?

It doesn't take that long, we promise!


The FAFSA opens on Oct 1. Every year, undergraduate and graduate students have to reapply for financial aid through the FAFSA portal.


The FAFSA website states, "It takes most people less than an hour to complete and submit a new FAFSA. This includes gathering any documents or data needed, completing and reviewing the application, and reading the important information on the "Confirmation" page you'll receive after you sign and submit your FAFSA.

Independent students who are not required to provide parental information or students who submitted a FAFSA last year and who are doing a Renewal FAFSA take even less time on average."


It is no doubt that the FAFSA application is lengthy. It has approximately 130 questions about the student and their family’s financial situation and dependency. Questions include household size, income, number of siblings in college, etc., which are considered when considering what type of aid to award.

But do not leave this until the last minute.

Apply early, since decisions for FAFSA are made on a first come first served basis!


How do they decide my need?

Somewhere between magic and science.


In short: the application reviewers of the FAFSA are trying to decide how great your family's need is. Since financial aid awards are "need based," the FAFSA aims to learn about your family to understand how much aid you qualify for by calculating the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) score of a student. Two days to three weeks after you submit the FAFSA, a Student Aid Report (SAR) will be sent to you via email. This report includes your EFC score. Watch out: the EFC score is easy to miss! It is a 6-digit number without a dollar sign in the first third of the email. That number is how much money the FAFSA assessed you and your family can contribute to your education per year. If the cost of attendance at your dream school is higher, this means you have a gap. Federal Student Aid will send your SAR to your listed universities, who may disburse award packages to accepted students based on how big their gap is.


Decoding your EFC Score

Basically, the only time where a score of 0 is good!


Full Need - You have an EFC score of 0, and you will get full aid.

Partial Need - Your EFC score is lower than the total cost of attendance (tuition + room & board) at your university, so you are eligible to receive need-based aid for the gap. Calculate your gap by subtracting your EFC score from the total cost of attendance.

No Need - Your EFC score is higher than the total cost of attendance, which means you don't qualify for any need-based aid at all. Congrats on your high income, though.


Click here for a more in-depth breakdown of EFC and aid.


How do I fill out the FAFSA?

We know this is really what you came for:

Get your parents if you're a dependent student (pretty much everyone)!


Step 1

Click to get your FSA ID. Both students and parents will need this to start the FAFSA.


Step 2

Collect this list of materials – you'll need them along the way. (SIMPLIFIED! If you file your taxes electronically, you may be able to instantly upload tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool!)


For dependent students (pretty much all of you), you will need this list of materials for both the student and the parents:

  • Your Social Security Number

  • Your Alien Registration Number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)

  • Your federal income tax returns from two years prior to the first semester of schools, W-2s, and other records of money earned. If this sounds confusing, I get you. Here's an example: If you're applying to start school in Fall 2020, you will need 2018's tax return.

  • Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)

  • Records of untaxed income (if applicable)

  • An FSA ID to sign electronically.

One more time for the people at the back: You may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.


Step 3

Submit your FAFSA as soon as possible at https://fafsa.ed.gov. You can always add schools later, so you can submit now even if your child has not solidified his or her list of colleges yet.


What if I want to send the

FAFSA to more than 10 universities?

We get you.


If you would like to list more than 10 universities, submit the FAFSA with the first 10 universities, then log back in, delete the first ten, add any additional universities you’d like to send the FAFSA to, and then submit it again. The first 10 universities will still receive the FAFSA, and so will the subsequent universities.


FAFSA eligibility criteria

Verbatim from the website, so don't judge us on the lingo.


The FAFSA general eligibility requirements are that you must

  • demonstrate financial need (for most programs);

  • be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen;

  • have a valid Social Security number (with the exception of students from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, or the Republic of Palau);

  • be registered with Selective Service, if you’re a male (you must register between the ages of 18 and 25);

  • be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program;

  • be enrolled at least half-time to be eligible for Direct Loan Program funds;

  • maintain satisfactory academic progress in college or career school;

  • sign the certification statement on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) stating that you are not in default on a federal student loan and do not owe money on a federal student grant and you will use federal student aid only for educational purposes;

  • show you’re qualified to obtain a college or career school education by having a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate or completing a high school education in a homeschool setting approved under state law (or—if state law does not require a homeschooled student to obtain a completion credential—completing a high school education in a homeschool setting that qualifies as an exemption from compulsory attendance requirements under state law);or enrolling in an eligible career pathway program and meeting one of the "ability-to-benefit" alternatives described below.



So: Now it's all up to you! Grab your tax returns and get started to make sure you're using all possible avenues to guarantee low college cost!