Guide to the FAFSA

Even as attendance of institutions of higher education has grown considerably over the past half-century, the relative costs and value of a college degree is a more controversial subject than ever. After decades of students accepting the idea that a college degree is the best ticket to a financially safe, middle class life, think pieces now proliferate on whether a college degree is actually worth the cost.

The reason behind the recent doubt is clear. Student loan debt has ballooned in the past few years:

But in spite of the warnings and alarmist articles about student debt, people with college degrees are better off in the job market and earn more over their lifetimes – about $1 million more.

And you can make a few smart moves before you ever head to college that will help your pocketbook considerably after you graduate. The first, foremost, and absolute most important of all those moves is: filling out the FAFSA.

What Does FAFSA Stand For?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). And yes, the free FAFSA is the version you should be looking for; you will find some websites that charge for it.

The FAFSA is the form that determines most of the aid you’re eligible to receive as a student. The federal government alone doles out nearly $170 billion in student aid each year and they decide who gets how much of that money based on the information included in your FAFSA form. And that’s just one part of the student aid pie the FAFSA form helps you cut into, most states use the FAFSA application to determine eligibility for state aid, and most colleges also use the form to determine how much private aid to provide to prospective students.

In case it’s not clear, this all means that if you’re thinking about going to college next year, you should definitely submit the FAFSA application.

Even if I’m not a high school graduate?

Yes, definitely. Non-traditional students also receive aid from filling out the FAFSA form.

Even if I’m interested in career school, graduate school, or applying for online degree programs, rather than a typical college?

Yes, definitely. The FAFSA determines aid for all those situations as well.

Even if I think my family makes too much to qualify?

Yes, definitely. Your level of FAFSA eligibility could surprise you.. You should definitely see if you qualify for aid now and, since you don’t know how your financial situation might change in the next 4-6 years, not applying now could hurt your chances of receiving aid throughout your time in college.

Even if I already have someone paying for my education?

Yes, definitely.

Even if [insert any other possible objection here]?

Yes, definitely. Submitting the FAFSA is free*, it only takes about 30 minutes to complete, and it could save you thousands. There’s no good reason not to take advantage of it.

*And don’t be confused, it really is free. It’s right there in the name. If you find yourself on a website charging money to complete the FAFSA (and there are some out there), switch over to

Probably, most students are. If you can check off these boxes, you should definitely fill out a FAFSA.

  • I’m a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national, or an eligible non-citizen.
  • I have a social security number.
  • I have a high school diploma or GED.
  • I don’t currently owe refunds on federal student debts.
  • I’m not in default on any student loans.
  • I haven’t been found guilty of either selling or possessing illegal drugs while receiving federal student aid.
  • I am either not a male aged 18-25, or I am registered with U.S. selective service.

In addition, these types of students are also eligible:

  • I have an unusual immigrant status
  • I have a non-traditional family
  • I don’t depend on one or both parents

What the FAFSA Application Can Get You

By filling out the FAFSA you gain potential access to three types of aid:

  • Grants – Aid that you don’t have to pay back, including Pell grants.
  • Loans – Money that you will have to pay back, plus interest. The interest rates for FAFSA loans will often be lower than for other types of debt, but many students still end up paying back double what they borrow by the time they pay it off, so be cautious with how much of this type of aid you accept.
  • Work Study – The federal work-study program encourages students to find jobs either on campus or in fields related to their studies in order to earn part of their aid package. It’s not free money like grants since you work for it, but you don’t have to pay any of it back.

Types of Federal Grants Available

  • Federal Pell Grants – Pell grants are need-based grants determined based on the family’s financial situation, the cost of attendance at the school chosen, and the student’s status (full-time or part-time). Pell grants are most often awarded to undergraduate students.
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)Awarded to undergraduate students with significant need, these grants are funded by the federal government and distributed by the school.
  • TEACH GrantsTEACH grants are specifically available to students interested in a teaching career and can pay up to $4,000 a year. Accepting a TEACH grant requires some commitments though: you have to agree to take certain classes and go into teaching after graduation or it turns into a loan you have to pay back.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service GrantFor students that have lost a parent in military service, this grant can replace the Pell Grant for families not otherwise eligible for it.

The FAFSA is designed to help even the playing field and give anyone interested in attending college a financial chance to do so. The forms are reviewed by officials in the U.S. Department of Education who analyze all the financial information you provide and use it to calculate your expected family contribution (EFC).

The FAFSA EFC is what the government and colleges, based on their somewhat complicated calculations, determine that your family can afford to pay out-of-pocket for college each year. This is a very important number.

The federal and state governments will use the FAFSA EFC and any other relevant information you provide to figure out what government grants you qualify for, and then they’ll pass the information along to the colleges you’ve listed on the form.

Each college then has the opportunity to put together an awards package for you. The gap between the overall costs of attending the school (which include tuition, room, and board) and your EFC is the amount your award package seeks to fill in. Some schools require additional forms beyond the FAFSA (like the CSS Profile) to figure out their awards packages, but most of the colleges in the nation use the FAFSA.

The amount each school provides you in its award package isn’t just about the FAFSA EFC, it’s also influenced by how much they want you to attend and how much money they have to give. In other words, don’t discount the prestigious colleges due to cost. They’re often the ones with the most money to spend on attracting the students they want. If you’re a good student, you may ultimately find it cheaper to attend an ivy league than your local state school.

The FAFSA Calculator

If you don’t want to spend time on the edge of your seat wondering what to expect from your FAFSA, you can use the FAFSA estimator to get an advance picture of what you’re likely to earn. When it comes to planning for college, you don’t want to leave anything to the last minute. If you take advantage of the FAFSA calculator, you can make better decisions earlier since you’ll know what to expect.

Many factors go into what a person’s day-to-day financial situation looks like, not all of them easily addressed by something like the FAFSA form. If something about your situation is out of the ordinary, you may need to take a slightly different approach to the FAFSA application than other students do.

Determining Dependency

The government assumes that most undergraduate students can count on receiving some help from their parents in paying for college. The default approach to determining aid for a student takes the parents’ income and assets into account. That can present a big problem for students who don’t receive help from their parents and risk being stuck with far less financial aid because of how much their parents make.

The only way around this is to qualify for dependency status. The government is very strict about this – it’s not enough to just let them know that your parents aren’t helping you.

Am I eligible to apply as an independent?

  • I will be 24 or older by Dec. 31 of the school year I’m applying for.
  • I am married.
  • I have at least one child that receives at least half of their financial support from me.
  • I have any other dependents that receive at least half of their financial support from me.
  • I’ll be enrolling at the graduate level, rather than undergraduate.
  • I’m a qualified veteran of the U.S. military or currently serving on active duty.
  • I am an orphan, ward of the court, or have been in foster care at any time after the age of 13.
  • I am in legal guardianship.
  • I am an emancipated minor.
  • I am a youth that has been homeless or at risk of being homeless.

If you can answer “Yes” to any of the items on the checklist, you can file as an independent. That means you get to skip providing all your parents’ financial information and you’ll likely be awarded a much higher aid package as a result.

If nothing on the checklist applies to you, but you feel confident the government should consider your case to be an independent, you may qualify for a dependency override. Indicate on your FAFSA application that you believe you have a special circumstance. Your FAFSA reviewer will consider your circumstances and decide whether or not you should qualify for an override.

Non-traditional Families

A significant number of students live in non-traditional households with parents who are divorced, re-married, or with guardians who are not their biological parents. Your family situation influences how much aid you’ll be awarded – and filling out the FAFSA incorrectly in this regard can come with serious consequences – so make sure you understand how to approach it correctly for your case.

My Parents are Divorced

For students with divorced parents, you only need to provide the financial information for one of the two parents, your custodial parent. Which parent gets this distinction depends on which one you lived with for most of the past year. If your parents have shared custody and you spent a roughly equal amount of time between the two, it may be complicated figuring out who should be considered your custodial parent, but in almost every case there’s one parent a child spends more time with than the other.

One or Both of my Parents is Re-married
If your custodial parent is married, then the financial information of that stepparent will need to be included on the form. Even if they won’t be contributing to your college education, their income and assets will be considered in the aid package you receive. You’ll also need to include any child support or alimony payments received from your non-custodial parent as income on the form.

One of My Parents is Deceased
You don’t have to report your deceased parent’s income, just that of your remaining parent. If the parent that’s passed was your custodial parent, you may have the option of receiving a dependency override.

I Live in Foster Care
The financial information of your foster parents doesn’t have to be included on the form unless they’ve legally adopted you, in which case they should be treated as any other parent would on the form. You’re likely to qualify for independent status and have only your own income and assets considered in your award.

I Live with a Legal Guardian
As with students in foster care, as long as your legal guardian hasn’t officially adopted you, their income doesn’t need to be included on the form and you may qualify for independent status.

Non-traditional Students

Any student over the age of 24 is automatically considered a dependent and should fill out the FAFSA with only their own financial information (instead of including their parents). If you’re married, your spouse’s financial information will also need to be included. You’re still potentially eligible for most of the same grants and aid traditional students are, so the FAFSA is just as important to fill out for older and returning students as it is for high school seniors.

Veterans and Veterans’ Family Members

Even if you expect to have much of your college costs covered by the G.I. Bill®, you should fill out the FAFSA to see about getting more. Veterans and their family members are potentially eligible for all the grants and financial aid that other students are. Students who have lost a parent in Iraq or Afghanistan may also qualify for the additional Iraq and Afghanistan service grants.

* GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at

Other Special Cases

The FAFSA formula is set and, other than those cases we’ve already covered, there’s not a good way for students to explain other circumstances that may affect their ability to pay for college. While there’s not much you can do about the amount of governmental aid you receive, you can appeal directly to your college’s financial aid office if there’s a factor not addressed on the form or if something comes up that changes your family’s financial situation. Often a college’s financial aid counselors will work with you to amend the awards package based on your need.

The form itself is a bit of a pain. It should only take about 30 minutes to fill out if you come to it prepared, but requires the kind of information most of us can’t provide off the top of our heads. Make sure you figure out the FAFSA requirements in advance to save yourself some trouble. You may have to do some digging through other forms or records to find it all.

Gathering What You’ll Need

To simplify the process of your FAFSA application, you’ll want to have the following ready when you sit down to fill it out:

  • Your social security number
  • Your parents’ social security numbers if you’ll be filing as a dependent
  • Your driver’s license number (if you have one)
  • Your alien registration number (for non-citizens)
  • Your federal tax returns for you and anyone else you need to provide information for (potentially, your parents, husband and any dependents)
  • Records of any untaxed income you’ve received – this may include child support payments, interest earned on your bank accounts, or veterans’ benefits.
  • Information on any other financial assets you have, such as cash, the money in your bank accounts, and the amount invested in stocks and bonds.

Submitting the Form

Now that you’ve got that big stack of paperwork in front of you, you have a few options for filing it.

  • Fill it out online. This is the easiest of the options. Simply go to and the website will walk you through the process.
  • Fill it out on paper. You can get a paper copy of the FAFSA to fill out from your high school guidance office, a college financial aid office, and most libraries and send it in by mail.
  • Get help preparing. If you’re worried you might have trouble filling out the form in the way most likely to benefit you, you can get some help. You can find a number of organizations that provide free assistance to students looking for help with the FAFSA, as well as companies that will prepare and submit the form for you for a fee. Paying for help with the FAFSA shouldn’t be necessary for most students though, so explore the other available resources first.

Have each section labeled with the following notes:

  1. At the beginning: If you get confused at any point about how to properly fill out a question, check out the government’s extensive guide that goes into detail about what’s needed on each line: 2015-16
  2. For social security line: Double-check this! It’s important you get it right or your application may be rejected and your award delayed.
  3. For driver’s license line: If you don’t have a driver’s license, enter a zero here. Don’t leave any fields blank. You don’t want the reviewer to think you just forgot that section.
  4. For marital status section: Even if you plan to be married before the school semester starts, answer this question based on your status at the time of filing.
  5. On selective service section: If you’re male and below the age of 26, you have to be registered for selective service to qualify for aid. If you’re not registered, you can simply choose the “Register me” option here to be automatically enrolled.
  6. For drug conviction section: You can answer “no” here if you have a drug conviction, but it:

    • Did not occur while you were receiving federal aid
    • Happened before you were 18
    • Has been removed from your record
      Even if you select “Yes,” you may still be eligible for aid.
  7. On high school section: You need a high school degree or GED to qualify for federal financial aid. If you received a GED, enter a zero on these lines.
  8. On income section: Don’t include cents when filling out dollar amounts.
  9. On income section: You should re-visit our section on special cases if you’re not sure which of these sections to fill out. For anything not relevant to you, put a zero in the field so the reviewer knows you didn’t just skip it.
  10. On untaxed income section: Make sure you don’t forget anything! Filling out the FAFSA wrong can result in big fines. This section would include most benefits you receive from the government and things like child support and bank account interest.
  11. Parents’ social security section: If your parents don’t have social security numbers, you can fill in the slots with zeroes.
  12. For section about parents’ income: Re-visit our section on Special Cases to help figure out who to count as your parents on the form.
  13. On college listing section: You can only list four FAFSA school codes on the paper version of the FAFSA, but if you fill it out online the list goes up to ten. Some schools look at the ordering of schools on the FAFSA when they’re deciding who to accept or how much aid to give. Experts recommend listing them alphabetically to avoid this.
  14. At the end: If you file online, print and save your confirmation page. If you fill out a paper copy, make a copy before you send it in. It’s always good to have a backup.

What is the FAFSA deadline?

The FAFSA deadline to be considered for federal aid is June 30 – more specifically, that’s midnight Central Time on June 30. But many states have their own, different FAFSA deadlines.

Complicating things further, some colleges have their own FAFSA deadlines as well, so check with each school you’re interested in to find out what their deadlines are. And pay careful attention: some schools base their deadline on the day the FAFSA is submitted, some base them on when it’s fully processed (which would make your real FAFSA deadline 5-10 days earlier than the listed one).

If you’re reading this early enough though, forget when FAFSA is due. File as early as you can possibly manage. There’s a limited pool of money this aid comes out of, so getting your name into consideration early can pay off and mean you get more of it. The FAFSA form becomes available each year on January 1, if you can get organized and get the form in right away, you’ll be glad you did.

If you missed your chance to file early and find the FAFSA deadline fast approaching, at least aim to submit your form a week before your state’s due date. That way, if you encounter any complications, you have time to resolve them.

What if I Missed the FAFSA Deadline?

Sorry, but you’re going to miss out on most of the aid you may have qualified for this year. Go ahead and fill it out and submit – you may still be able to get something. And set up a calendar alert for next year now so you’re not late again.

Contact your school’s financial aid office and explain the situation, they may be able to help you out with more aid than you’d receive otherwise.

Once the FAFSA’s submitted, the government will calculate and send you a Student Aid Report (SAR). If you provide an email address on the form, you should expect to receive your SAR within 3-5 days. If you don’t include an email address, you can expect it in the mail in about 7-10 days. While you’re waiting, you can check on the FAFSA status by signing into your account at

What’s in the Student Aid Report

If the government found your application to be complete, your SAR will include your estimated family contribution (EFC), which is the main number that both the government and your colleges will use to help figure out how much need-based aid should be sent your way.

If they find that any important information is missing, your initial SAR will instead consist of information about what’s missing and how to provide it.

How to Make FAFSA Corrections

If you need to submit corrections for your FAFSA, whether because your SAR says so, something’s changed since you submitted the form, or you realized there was a mistake on it, it’s not too difficult. Although there are some limits on what you’re allowed to change – you can find those described here.

You can make those FAFSA corrections online by visiting, logging into your account, and choosing the “Make FAFSA Corrections” option. If you prefer to do it by mail, write the updated information on your SAR, sign it, and send it to the address provided on the SAR. After submitting your FAFSA corrections, you’ll receive an updated SAR with an EFC based on the new information provided.

Understanding Your Aid Package

Your FAFSA EFC will be provided to all of the colleges you listed when you filled out your FAFSA. The schools that accept you will use that information to put together a financial aid package for you that will consist of a mix of loans, grants, work-study, and private funding from the institution – or whichever types of aid they determine you qualify for.

Some schools may ask you to fill out a CSS or provide additional information for them to determine your package. Try to get them everything they ask for as quickly as possible, the sooner they can analyze your information the more money will be available for them to spend on you.

Sometimes understanding the numbers in a financial aid letter can be challenging. If you find yourself confused, review the examples on the Financial Aid Letter Decoder to better understand what you’re looking at. Only the grants and scholarships are free money – the loans will need to be paid back with interest, and the work study will only be paid out if you get a qualifying job during your years in school.

If you have any questions, be upfront about asking your college’s financial aid office to help. That’s their job.

Making sure that you fill out the form and get it in on time is the most important advice we have, but there are a few ways to help ensure the submission process runs more smoothly and increase your chances of getting more aid.

  1. Apply as early as possible. Put it on your calendar now. When the form becomes available January 1, get it done ASAP. For both the government aid and schools’ financial aid packages, there will be more money to go around for the students whose packages get put together first. Many families want to wait until their taxes are done, but you can use last year’s tax information in order to get it in earlier. If there’s information you need to change after the fact, that’s allowed (as covered in our section above on making FAFSA corrections). So don’t let that be an excuse, fill out the form as soon as you can.
  2. Fill it out every year you’re in school. You want to keep getting that aid, right? The FAFSA should be submitted every year you’re in school (and always in advance of the FAFSA deadlines) if you want to receive aid for each year. Just make that calendar alert for January 1 ongoing for a while.
  3. Fill it out completely. While you’ll find sections on the FAFSA that don’t seem relevant to you, don’t leave them blank. When you come to FAFSA questions that don’t apply to your situation, always put a zero in there so the reviewer knows you didn’t just forget to fill them in. Leaving them blank can slow down the process of receiving your SAR and financial aid packages.
  4. Consider where your savings are kept. This is where things get a little complicated. You have to be very careful to make sure that all the information you provide on the form is accurate, or you could face a fine of up to $20,000 and possible prison time. That said, if you understand how different types of savings and assets are counted previous to filling out the form, you may be able to make some changes to how your money is saved in advance that could benefit you. For example, money that’s in an account in a parent’s name is counted at a lower rate in the FAFSA calculations than accounts in a student’s name. If parents are planning to provide their child with a nice nest egg to count on in life, waiting to transfer it over to them until after college can mean getting more in financial aid. The formulas are complicated, but knowing how the FAFSA works can potentially help you get a little more help paying for college.
  5. Be willing to appeal. You can’t appeal the amounts of government aid awarded by the FAFSA, but you can talk to your chosen college about re-considering the aid package they provide. If there’s some kind of extenuating circumstance that you couldn’t communicate on the form, write them a letter or give them a call. The financial aid advisors are there for precisely the purpose of helping students afford college. They may be able to help you get a better deal.
  6. Always remember the difference between loans and grants. They both show up in the financial aid packages under the heading of “financial aid,” but one’s free money and the other may cost you twice as much (or more) by the time you pay it off. For most students, taking out some of the FAFSA loans will be necessary, but make sure you recognize them for what they are so you don’t feel sideswiped by the payments after graduation.
  7. Stay eligible. Most of your financial aid award will suddenly go “poof” if you fail your classes or get arrested. You don’t want to end up paying to finish college out of pocket because you made a dumb mistake. Do the work and keep your grades up. And don’t get arrested (that’s just good life advice).
  8. Be strategic in how you list your colleges. Some colleges (mostly private colleges) view the order that you list FAFSA school codes on the form as revealing your degree of preference for each. If one of these is low on your list, they may interpret that as meaning you probably won’t choose to go there and give you less priority in deciding their admissions. Or if they’re on the top of the list, they may see that as an indication that they can count on you attending no matter what they offer and give you less. When you’re filling in that section of the form, consider listing your schools alphabetically so the schools won’t know how much priority you give to each and you won’t end up being penalized for your preferences.

College will be hard enough without worrying all the time about the costs. Do what you can to make it a little easier on yourself now and in the years to come. And do the work once you’re there to make sure all the costs are worth it and you get your degree.

Frequently Asked FAFSA Questions

How long does filling out the FAFSA form take?

It depends on how long it takes you to collect the forms and information you’ll need. Once you have all the information in front of you, you can expect to spend about 30-40 minutes filling out the form.

Is it ok to skip FAFSA questions that don’t seem applicable to me?

No. If your application looks incomplete, it will slow down the process of getting it processed. Instead of skipping them or leaving them blank, put a zero in any field that isn’t applicable to you.

What if I don’t know my parents’ financial information?

Unless you qualify for independent status, it’s really important to get this information, if at all possible. Talk to your parents and explain the situation to them. Even if they’ve made it clear they won’t be helping you cover the cost, their cooperation in filling out the form is required for you to get access to financial aid. The FAFSA does allow students to forego providing information in a few types of special circumstances, such as if your parents are in jail or you left an abusive home.

If none of the special circumstances described at the link above apply to you and no conversation or persuasive tactics you try can convince your parents to help, you can still fill out the FAFSA and select “No” for the question that asks if you can provide your parents’ financial information. Unfortunately, this will severely limit the types of aid you’re eligible for. You’re unlikely to get anything other than an unsubsidized loan. If you find yourself in this position, talk to the financial aid offices at the schools you hope to attend to find out if they can offer any options to help you cover the additional costs.

How does the IRS data retrieval tool work?

The FAFSA’s IRS data retrieval tool helps students have an easier time filling in their family’s financial information. Instead of having to dig up your parents’ tax returns or other financial documents, you can use the tool to auto-fill them in for you.
You can be more confident the information is correct, and save yourself some time. The data retrieval tool is available for most FAFSA filers, but there are some cases where students are ineligible to use it:

  • You are married, but filed as Married Filing Separately
  • Your parents are married, but filed as Married Filing Separately
  • You are married and filed as Head of the Household
  • Your parents are married and filed as Head of the Household
  • You or your parents filed a form 1040X amended tax return
  • You or your parents filed a Puerto Rican or foreign tax return
  • You just submitted your tax return – it takes several weeks after you file for the IRS data retrieval tool to become available

If you’re eligible to use the tool, it’s highly recommended that you do for accuracy’s sake.

Should I save my FAFSA before linking to the IRS data retrieval tool?

Yes. If there’s a problem, you don’t want to lose the information you already filled in.

I support myself. Can I file as an independent?

Not necessarily. The FAFSA requirements are very specific on who is eligible for independent status (see our graphic above). Check the list to see if you qualify. If not, you’ll have to file as a dependent.

Do I still need to know my parents’ financial information if I qualify as an independent.

No. You don’t have to worry about filling in any of their information if you qualify for independent status.

If I live with my grandparents, should I report their financial information in the parent section?

No. Only biological and adopted parents are counted as parents by the FAFSA. If your grandparents are your legal guardians, you probably qualify for independent status and don’t need to fill in any financial information but your own. If they’re not, you may still need to determine who your custodial parent is and fill in their information on the form.

Who should I count in the household size?

If you file as an independent, you should include:

  • Yourself
  • Your spouse, if applicable
  • Any dependents that rely on you for more than half of their financial support
  • If you or your spouse is pregnant and the child will be born before the award year and be a dependent that relies on you for more than half of their financial support, they should be included as well

If you file as a dependent, you should include:

  • Your custodial parent
  • Their spouse, if applicable
  • Any dependents that receive more than half of their financial support from your custodial parent and their spouse.
  • If your custodial parent or their spouse is pregnant and the child will be born before the award year and will be a dependent that relies on them for more than half of their financial support, they should be included as well.

What if my parents are undocumented?

If you’re a permanent resident or citizen, you still qualify for FAFSA eligibility and should fill out the form. Filling in your parent’s financial information will work the same way as it would if they were citizens, although if they don’t file a U.S. tax return you won’t be able to the use the IRS tax retrieval form.

When you get to the section that asks for your parents’ social security numbers, enter zeros in those fields. If you’re filling out the FAFSA online, you may receive an error message when you try to submit the page, just click submit again until the form allows you to move on.

What if I or my parents are in a same-sex marriage?

Now that same-sex marriage has been legalized throughout the country, same-sex couples should approach the FAFSA in the same way that any other married couples do.

What if my parents live together, but aren’t married?

Research your state’s common law marriage laws. If your parents meet the criteria for common law marriage, you should fill out the form as though they’re married. If they don’t, or if your state doesn’t have common law marriages, then you should select single and fill out the form with the information of the parent who provides more than half of your financial support.

What if my parents aren’t around to sign the FAFSA form?

If your custodial parent isn’t physically available to sign the FAFSA form, have them create an FSA ID and electronically sign.

Why do I have to report gender on the FAFSA?

It’s a requirement that any male aged 18-25 must be enrolled in selective service to qualify for financial aid. For this reason, students must mark a gender on the form.

What should I put if I’m trans?

You’ll be expected to provide the information that’s associated with your social security number, or you risk your FAFSA being rejected. If you’ve gone through the process of legally changing your name and/or gender, you can fill out the form with your current information. If not, you should fill it out with the information the social security office has down for you now.

If that means the information you used on your college applications was different than what you filled in on your FAFSA, contact the schools you’ve applied to as soon as possible to explain the situation so they know to connect the FAFSA with your application.

Even if you’ve legally changed your sex, the gender on your birth certificate is what is considered when it comes to expectations of selective service. If your birth certificate has you listed as a male, you’ll have to register for selective service to be eligible for financial aid.

What FAFSA school codes should I list if I applied to more than 10?

If some of the schools you applied to have earlier FAFSA deadlines than others, prioritize getting those listed on your form. After you’ve received your SAR and know the first 10 schools have been sent your information, you can log back in and use the “Make FAFSA Correction” option to sub different schools in.

You’ll have to remove some of the original schools in order to add the new ones, but as long as they’ve already been sent your SAR, that shouldn’t cause any issues.

What is the difference between adjusted gross income and income tax?

Your adjusted gross income is everything you (or your parents) made in a year – including the income from work, government benefits, alimony, investments or any other sources. Your income tax is merely the percentage of that number that you need to pay in taxes for the year.

You must be careful not to list the same number for these two fields, as the numbers should be considerably different. Using the IRS data retrieval tool can help you avoid this common error.

How do I determine net worth?

If you have to determine the net worth of property or investments for the FAFSA, you’ll want to subtract any debt accrued for a purchase from the amount it’s worth. For a car or house, that means looking at what’s left on the car loan or mortgage and figuring out the difference between that number and the item’s current worth.

What should I put on the form if I’m not sure if I’ll be living on campus or not?

If there’s a chance you’ll be living on campus, then mark that you are. This will ensure your colleges calculate the highest level of financial aid for you, which will help you make a more informed decision about what you can afford. If you ultimately end up not living on campus, the school can amend your financial aid package accordingly once you let them know.

Will a high FAFSA EFC disqualify me from receiving financial aid?

Not necessarily, it depends on how your EFC compares to the cost of attendance for the schools you’re most interested in. Even if you don’t end up qualifying for government financial aid, you may be able to earn scholarships or aid from other sources.

If I’m male and 17 when I fill out the FAFSA, do I still have to register for selective service?

No, but you will have to register as soon as you turn 18 to continue to qualify for financial aid, so it will make your life easier to check that box now.

What if information changes after the form is submitted?

It’s fairly common for students to encounter changes between filling out the FAFSA and receiving their financial aid packages – whether because of big life events like the death of a parent or a marriage, or something as simple as moving to a new address. You can pretty easily FAFSA corrections if anything like this occurs. Simply log in to your FAFSA and click on the “Make FAFSA Correction” option to update the information.

If I miss the FAFSA deadline, will I still be eligible for aid?

Yes, but since the funds that FAFSA pulls from are treated as first-come first-serve, you’re likely to be awarded far less than if you file early or on time. Nonetheless, you should still submit the form so you can get whatever you can.

What is work-study?

If part of the financial aid package you receive from a school includes work-study you should understand that this is not money that will automatically be included in your aid. In order to take advantage of that portion of the aid, you’ll have to find a work-study eligible job. Often there are various positions around campus that students can apply for that fall into this category, as well as some jobs in nonprofit organizations or public agencies. In some cases, schools also partner with businesses to create relevant work-study opportunities for students.

Talk to your college’s financial aid office to better understand the work-study options available at your school and apply for any position you’re interested in as early as possible. Work-study positions aren’t guaranteed and some may be competitive.

Do grants and scholarships I receive need to be reported to the IRS?

In most cases. Any aid provided that goes toward tuition is not considered income and doesn’t have to be reported. Any aid you receive that goes toward related expenses like room and board or your meal plan will need to be reported as income. Since determining what should count and not can get a little complicated, make sure to provide the details to your accountant so they can help ensure you stay within the tax laws.

In addition to filling out the FAFSA, it’s important to research and select the best program for your educational and financial needs. We’ve taken out the guesswork by ranking online programs at various levels in popular subjects. The following are a small sampling of our program rankings.

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