The FAFSA - Step One for Financial Aid

Updated June 26, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
by Kay Peterson, Ph.D.,

Applying for financial aid is easier than you think. Your first stop: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). For many schools, this is the only form you need.

What is it?

The FAFSA is the form the federal government uses to determine your eligibility for federal assistance (loans, grants, work-study appointments and some scholarships). Schools also base their financial aid package on the FAFSA. And, as the name implies, the FAFSA is completely free.

Using the information you supply on the FAFSA, the federal processor determines your expected family contribution (EFC) - the amount of money you and your parents can be expected to contribute to your college costs. Your school then applies a simple equation to decide how much financial aid you will need. Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is subtracted from the school's Cost of Attendance to arrive at your Financial Need.


Cost of Attendance

Tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, travel and incidental expenses


Expected Family Contribution

Amount of money your parents can be expected to contribute


Financial Need

Amount you will need to go to school

The school tries to meet your need through a financial aid package made up of funds from federal, state, school and private sources as well as loans and student employment.

You should submit a FAFSA every year you need aid - even if you think you don't qualify for financial aid. Your eligibility can change from year to year, especially if there are changes in your family's circumstances. Also, being rejected for federal aid is sometimes a prerequisite for receiving private awards.

When should I apply?

The new FAFSA form becomes available each year on or before January 1. Submit your application as soon after January 1 as possible. At many schools, funds are limited; if you submit your FAFSA too late, they won't have any aid left for you!

Your school may require additional forms besides the FAFSA or an earlier submission deadline. Contact your school's financial aid office to learn about requirements for your school.

How do I file the FAFSA?

You can file a FAFSA by:

  • Visiting the FAFSA Web site and filing the form online.
  • Picking the paper form up at your high school, college or library.

If you have any questions about the FAFSA or federal student assistance programs, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243, TTY 1-800-730-8913) from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday. You can also submit questions through the FAFSA Web site.

What happens next?

If you submitted a FAFSA online, or included your email address on your paper FAFSA, you should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) within two weeks. Four to six weeks after you submit a paper FAFSA, you'll receive your SAR. The SAR is your official record that the federal processor received your FAFSA, as well as a summary of the financial aid you can expect to receive.

The federal processor will also send a copy of your SAR to each of the schools you listed on the FAFSA. If you need additional copies of the SAR, call the federal processor at 1-800-433-3243.

Once you've received your SAR:

  • Carefully review to make sure all the information is correct. If there are any errors, call your school's financial aid administrator or the Student Financial Aid help desk at 1-800-433-3243 to ask how you should make corrections.
  • Note your Data Release Number (DRN). It's the four-digit number located on the lower left corner of the first page of your SAR. You will need it to apply to additional schools.
  • Check to see if your SAR has been selected for verification. If you have been selected, there will be a notification in the text of your SAR. About 30 percent of FAFSAs are randomly selected for verification.

If selected, you will be asked by your college financial aid administrators to provide more information. Be sure to respond as soon as possible. Your aid offer may be delayed until the materials are received - which may leave you without aid if funds have already been allotted.

If you do not receive your SAR within four to six weeks, call the federal processor at 1-800-433-3243. Be ready to provide your Social Security Number and date of birth for verification.

Filling out your FAFSA is the first step toward receiving financial aid. Start early, follow these steps and you may find that financing your college education is easier than you thought!

See also:

  • FAFSA Checklist
  • Tips for Filling out the FAFSA
  • Common Errors on the FAFSA
  • FAFSA and the Independent Student

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