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Your No-Nonsense, No-Stress Guide to the FAFSA

FAFSA. How are five little letters so intimidating? Between the tedious application and the confusing FAFSA deadline, it can all be a bit overwhelming. Well, fear not. We’re here to walk you through it.

First of all, what is the FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and it’s the form that determines eligibility for federal loans, grants and work-study funds for college and graduate students. It’s administered by the U.S. Department of Education, which is the largest provider of student financial aid in the nation, providing more than $120 billion in aid each year. More than 20 million FAFSAs are submitted annually.

Who should fill it out?

If a student is a dependent of their parents, the parents’ financial info should be used on the FAFSA. If a student is an independent, they should fill out the FAFSA with their own financial information.

The FAFSA looks like a pain. Is it worth my time?

Without a doubt. Any student or family with a member headed for higher education should fill out the FAFSA. Not sure you’ll need financial aid? You should fill it out anyway. Don’t think you’ll qualify? Do it, regardless.

The Office of Federal Student Aid (a division of the U.S. Department of Education) uses the FAFSA to figure out how much a student or their parents can afford when it comes to paying for school. This is called your expected family contribution, or EFC.

Your EFC isn’t necessarily the amount of money you’ll write a check for. Instead, it determines the amount of federal student aid you are eligible to receive, which plays into the entire financial aid package a college may offer you.

Additionally, many states use your FAFSA to figure out if you’re eligible for state aid, and some private financial aid providers use it to determine whether you qualify for their funding. So no matter how you slice it, filling out this form is the first step to getting money.

The FAFSA is also your ticket to federal grants, a.k.a. government money that you don’t have to pay back.

Think of it this way: If financial aid is a nightclub you want to get into, then the FAFSA is the bouncer.

But what if I don’t need financial aid?

The FAFSA isn’t only a means to get loans or grants — it can also determine whether or not you qualify for certain scholarships. Additionally, some schools use it to put together merit-based aid packages. Filling out the FAFSA may still be the first step to lowering your tuition bill, even if you don’t need financial aid.

What is the deadline?

The short answer is that the FAFSA is due every year by June 30.

The slightly longer answer is that a new iteration of the FAFSA begins every year on October 1 and runs through June 30 of the year after the following year. (Stay with us here.) That means the FAFSA window for each academic year is more than a year and a half long. For example, you could begin applying for aid via the FAFSA for the 2022-2023 school year on October 1, 2021, and you have until June 30, 2023 to complete it.

$120 billion
The amount of aid the U.S. Department of Education allocates to students each year

Sounds like you have a ton of time, right? Well, yes, and no, because really, you should fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible. Here’s why:

There’s only so much money in the government pool. Once it’s claimed for the school year, it’s gone, so in order to ensure you get what you need, you’ll want to fill the FAFSA out as early as you can, meaning once they start accepting applications on October 1.

Additionally, state financial aid deadlines, as well as the deadlines for your particular school, do not always match up with the FAFSA deadlines. They may be earlier, and you don’t want to miss them. You can check state deadlines at, and you should check with schools’ financial aid offices to see what unique deadlines they have in place.

What’s the most important thing to remember? That there’s no such thing as fashionably late when it comes to the FAFSA. Early birds get the money.

What if I screw up on my FAFSA and need to make a correction?

Don’t worry. You have until September of the same deadline year to make corrections to your FAFSA. So for example, for the 2022-2023 school year, you have until September 15, 2022 to make an update.

I’m not sure what college I’m going to yet. Should I still submit a FAFSA application?

Absolutely. If you haven’t yet applied to college, or haven’t heard back, don’t sweat it. Just list the schools you applied to, or that you intend to apply to, on your FAFSA form and submit it as soon as possible. (If you apply online, you can list up to 10 schools.) If you change your mind or need to tack on additional schools, you can always update your FAFSA.

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OK, I submitted my FAFSA. Now what?

If you submit your FAFSA online, you should get a reply within three to five days. This reply will be in the form of a Student Aid Report which will summarize the information you submitted and provide you with your expected family contribution, or EFC.

Submitted via mail? Then give it a week to 10 days.


The percentage of first-time, full-time degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students who were awarded financial aid in the 2014–15 academic year. (Source: NCES)

If you slipped up on something and your Student Aid Report says your FAFSA is incomplete, don’t panic. Your report will also tell you what you need to do to complete it.

Otherwise, double check your Student Aid Report to make sure all the information on it is accurate. If you need to make any changes, do so right away.

I’m impatient. I want to know right now how much federal aid I might qualify for. Can I get an estimate?

The U.S. Department of Education offers an online estimator tool called the FAFSA4caster. Answer a few quick questions and within minutes you’ll have a better idea of what kind of aid you’ll qualify for.

I was notified that I have to verify my information. What the heck does that mean?

Some students will be selected by a certain school to verify what’s on their FAFSA. You may see this notification on your Student Aid Report, or a school may contact you requesting verification. It doesn’t mean they don’t trust you. Most of the time it’s a randomized process. Just keep an eye out for these notices and follow any given instructions.

Hooray, I got into college! How does the FAFSA play in?

Congrats! When you’re accepted to a college, the school will send you a financial aid award letter. It will detail what kinds of loans, scholarships and/or grants they’re offering. It’s then up to you what kind of aid you’d like to accept.

I didn’t get the amount of financial aid I hoped for. Who do I complain to?

If you think you deserve more financial aid, especially if circumstances within your family have changed and you or your parents have less income than before, you can appeal your award. Contact your chosen school’s financial aid office to get specifics on how to do so.

Am I done now?

Not exactly. If you want to continue to receive aid for the length of time that you’re in school, you’ll have to fill out the FAFSA every year. The process will take a bit less time, though, since you’ll be able to submit a renewal FAFSA, which will automatically import some of your personal information.

You’ll also need to remain in good academic standing to maintain your access to aid. Schools typically have their own standards for this, so check with the financial aid office to ensure you’re on track.

Continue your research:

5 FAFSA Pitfalls To Avoid

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Author: Ali Trachta

Ali is the former Content Writer/Editor at Niche. She's a content strategist and award-winning writer, as well as a former editor at LA Weekly and NEXTpittsburgh. As a mom of one who's lived and worked all across the country, she's glad to have once again found her niche in her hometown of Pittsburgh.