What Are the Steps to Apply for FAFSA?

When it comes to stress-inducing paperwork, applying for Federal financial aid can be right up there with preparing your tax return. In fact, you generally cannot apply for financial aid without having completed your taxes!

While the process may seem overwhelming at first, it really is quite straightforward. The biggest sources of frustration will come from waiting until the last minute and not having the necessary information ready when you need it.

This step-by-step guide will walk you through everything you need to know when it comes to applying for financial aid.

Find Out Your Financial Aid Deadlines


With so many students applying for financial aid, the Federal Student Aid office (a division of the US Department of Education) has very little time to listen to excuses about why you didn’t get your forms in on time. To ensure you’ll get the aid you need, you’ve got to respect the deadlines.

The Federal FAFSA form, which is the basic platform on which all financial aid is built, is generally due by the end of June for that school year. For example, the deadline for the 2009-2010 school year will likely be at the end of June 2010.

If you plan on applying for aid from your state, the deadlines are often much earlier in the year. Additionally, the forms for Federal aid do not replace the need to fill out additional state forms.

Lastly, colleges and universities will often have unique deadlines and paperwork requirements for scholarships and programs that are unique to their school. The CSS PROFILE is a separate form used by over 600 schools for private scholarship and aid packages.

To check on the current deadlines, visit the application deadline page of the Department of Education’s web page.

Getting Your Paperwork Organized

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You should start the financial aid process by buying a small accordion-style file folder. This will be perfect for keeping all your personal financial documents, completed FAFSA forms, loan agreements, award letters, etc.

It would be a very wise idea to print out every email you send and receive, as well as every online form you complete, just in case your computer crashes. These records will also come in handy if you ever need to have a dispute with an institution.

Make sure you keep this folder in a very safe place. This should not by lying around in a dorm room or on the back seat of a car. With all your private information, tax returns, Social Security numbers, etc., this folder is an identity thief’s dream come true.

Apply for a FAFSA PIN Number

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Each student is assigned a unique PIN number by the Department of Education. This PIN number is required to “sign” your online FAFSA application, as well as to access much of your information.

It takes a minimum of 1-3 days to receive your PIN number once you request it. During this time, your information is verified with the Social Security Administration. If your information does not match up, or if the FAFSA system is overloaded, it may take longer than usual.

It is very important to apply for your PIN number well in advance of when you’ll need to use it. Applying for your PIN number within a couple of days of the financial aid deadline will likely cause you to miss it.

Keep this PIN number safe and private! It’s the same PIN number you will use during your entire college experience.

Complete and Submit Your FAFSA Form

Student loan paperwork
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Filling out the FAFSA form is perhaps the most confusing part of the entire financial aid process. Much of this confusion comes from the fact that the FAFSA form requires information from your tax return. Many of the categories of information requested are not familiar to people who hire someone to complete their annual tax return.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to review a blank FAFSA form before you actually sit down to complete one online. If there are categories or terms you don’t understand, you can contact your tax preparer or seek advice elsewhere. Again, you should avoid waiting until right before the deadline, since it may take a while to get answers to your questions.

As mentioned, accurately completing your FAFSA is going to generally require you to have your most recent year’s tax return completed. Not having this will leave you guessing on a lot of numbers and will require you to go back and correct the information later.

Check on the Status of Your FAFSA Form


Through the FAFSA website (using your PIN number), you can check on the status of your FAFSA application. While applications can be processed within a day or two of submission, it usually takes 1-2 weeks.

Checking your status will help you to know whether or not you completed your form correctly, not what you are going to receive in terms of aid. The information about your actual aid packages will be provided by the various schools you are interested in attending.

Contact the Financial Aid Offices at the Schools You are Considering


Once your application is processed, the financial aid department will help you begin to sort out your financial aid options. These may be a combination of subsidized or unsubsidized loans, scholarships, grants, tuition discounts, and work-study.

When you contact them, you should show the utmost courtesy, respect, and patience. Remember, these are the people who are trying to decide how to divide up a school’s limited financial aid resources!

Repeat the Application Process Every Year


One of the biggest mistakes new students make is assuming that they’ve secured financial aid for their entire college career. In reality, you need to complete a FAFSA and most state applications every year you wish to receive financial aid. Most schools also require students to re-qualify or re-apply for programs unique to their school.

Consider Getting Professional Help


If all this still sounds overwhelming, or if it’s hard to imagine finding the time to do this, you may want to consider hiring a professional. Just be aware that there are numerous financial aid scams out there, and no one can guarantee that you will receive certain types of financial aid.