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Common Questions About The FAFSA, Answered

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This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

Of all the acronyms college students encounter, the FAFSA is perhaps the most ubiquitous and, unfortunately, terrifying. However, it’s a key part of your college journey, and can benefit you in the long term–if you know how to use it. Here’s a breakdown of the FAFSA essentials.

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” It’s the annual form that helps your school and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) determine how much federal financial aid you can receive, from loans to grants to work-studies.

If you’re attending any college in the United States and want federal aid, it is essential you have the FAFSA filled out accurately. The information you provide in the FAFSA will apply to your aid for the next academic year–so if you’re filling out the FAFSA that opened October 1st 2022, that will influence your federal financial aid offer for the 2023-2024 school year.

That means if you’re a high school senior applying for college, you’ll want to fill it out now to determine your federal aid for your first year of college.

Awesome! Where can I fill it out? And when should I have it turned in?

Once the form opens on October 1st (this date stays consistent), all you need to fill it out is either Web access to studentaid.gov, where you can create an account to fill out a virtual form, or you can call the ED’s student aid department at 1-800-433-3242 to request a PDF that you can then print out and send via mail.

The federal due date for the FAFSA is typically some point in June. For the current round (the 2023-24 award year), your application is due June 30, 2024. This deadline is posted on the studentaid.gov website.

It seems far away, but if you need to submit any FAFSA corrections, you have to have those in by September 14, 2023. Furthermore, schools and states often have their own FAFSA deadlines, and their timeline may be much, much shorter than the government’s.

For your school’s deadline, you can email the financial aid office if it’s unclear. For state-specific deadlines, check out this link. https://studentaid.gov/apply-for-aid/fafsa/fafsa-deadlines

Cool, found the website. What information should I have on hand? How can I create an account?

As a student filling out the FAFSA for the first time, go to the website and click on “start here” and select that you’re a student. You’ll see an option for your parents or guardians–we’ll come back to that.

For now, you’re going to want to create an FSA ID. This link will take you out of the FAFSA page, but don’t worry, it saves your progress. Your FSA ID will allow you to fill out the FAFSA, sign a promissory note for your federal loans (should you approve them following the allocation period), and set up payment plans.

To create your FSA ID, you need some basic information about yourself, especially your name, birthdate, and Social Security number. Once you make an account with your own username and password (make sure to use information you have not used before to protect your data), return to the FAFSA page, where you can now log in!

Now, you can start filling out the FAFSA itself. First, you’ll fill out your contact information.

Next, you’ll get to some more detailed demographic questions, like your race and ethnicity, if you’re interested in a work study, what program you’re entering, and your citizenship status. You’ll answer some questions about your dependency status, like if you’re a veteran or married.

After the personal section, you answer the same questions about your parents or guardians (if applicable). Then, you get to some financial questions, like how much money earned by your parents or guardians in the last tax year.

Lastly, you answer the same question about yourself. For this section, it’s helpful to have paystubs on hand so you can see how much you made. Finally, you fill out a few more basic demographic questions before signing and submitting.

Your Guide To The FAFSA

What about my parents and guardians? Can they help me?

Yes, they can! The FAFSA encourages parents and guardians to help out, which is useful for more complicated financial questions including that of parental income.

Studentaid.gov allows students to save their forms using a savekey, which parents can then sign into (using their own FSA ID) and work on your FAFSA. They will also have to sign the form at the very end of the process after you.

What if I’m experiencing extenuating circumstances, and I feel like the information I submitted does not reflect my current financial situation?

If you’ve experienced sudden financial hardship beyond your control, like the loss of a job that the FAFSA does not reflect, please reach out to your school’s financial aid office and explain.

They will likely ask for supporting documents, such as a severance letter and a personal statement from the affected individual, and make adjustments (if possible) to your form.

For example, if your mother had a job making $100k and that matches the FAFSA’s timeline (from the time period where they request your income), but she had been laid off a few months ago with great negative effect on your family’s financial situation, you can reach out to your aid office for an appeal. Use the phrase “extenuating circumstances,” and they’ll know what you’re talking about.

OK, submitted everything! How can I tell my school? And when will I find out what aid I was eligible for?

Awesome! This is the easy part–so long as you selected your school when filling out the form, their financial aid office should receive the information and your work is done, at least until you get your award letter.

If this is your first year of college, you’ll likely receive your award letter alongside your acceptance letter in April or May (or whatever month matches your application process). If you’re a returning student, you should get your letter about a month before the semester starts.

What do the different types of aid mean? How can I accept or decline my offer? 

Your award offer, if you were eligible for federal aid, will list a total estimated cost of attending that institution for the upcoming academic year. If there are any institution-specific awards that you received (especially scholarships), they will be listed here, likely with a scholarship letter as well (depending on the caliber of the scholarship). It will also list the federal aid you received. Here are the main types of aid students receive:

  • Grants, especially Pell Grants: Grants are money that you do NOT have to pay back! This is essentially free money and the sweetest deal all around. Pell Grants are specifically awarded to low-income students and can max out at around $6,895 for a full year, but this number changes annually. Another type of grant is the SEOG, which is also provided by the federal government to students with exceptional need. Unlike the Pell Grant program, there is a limited fund available for each college to distribute. 
  • Subsidized/Unsubsidized loans: These are loans financed by the federal government that you will have to pay back. “Subsidized” means that the loan will not accrue interest when you’re still in school, while “unsubsidized” loans will accrue interest. The loan limits (the maximum amount of loans you can be rewarded) are listed here.

As of November 2022, the federal loan repayment is paused until December 31st, 2022, but when time comes to make those payments, you can use your FSA ID to learn more on the student aid website. 

  • Federal Work Study: A work study will help you get a job on campus (or in some other format employed by the school). This helps you get work that may be unavailable to other students. Oftentimes, private institutions may also have their own work-study program.

Do I have to do it again next year?

Yes, but you’ll get the flow of it by then! I suggest signing up for regular email alerts from the U.S. Department of Education so you don’t miss a single deadline or opportunity. You’ve got this!

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Author: Rebecca Hanson

I'm currently a sophomore English major at Lewis & Clark College in sunny Portland, OR. Alongside my writing for Niche, I also contribute to LC's student newspaper and radio. I'm passionate about writing, playing bass, and taking care of my dog, Howie (not pictured).