Need to fill out the FAFSA® but don’t know where to start? I’m here to help. Let’s walk through the process step by step:1. Create an Account (FSA ID)
- Student: An FSA ID is a username and password you need to log in to and sign the FAFSA online. If you don’t have an FSA ID, get one here ASAP. It takes about 10 minutes to create an FSA ID. If this will be your first time filling out the FAFSA, you’ll be able to use your FSA ID right away to sign and submit your FAFSA online. If this is not your first time filling out the FAFSA, you’ll need to wait 1–3 days before you can use your new FSA ID (there’s an account verification process).
- Parent: If your child is required to report parent information on the FAFSA, you need to create your own FSA ID in order to sign your child’s FAFSA online. Create an FSA ID here. Parents are able to use their FSA IDs right away.
IMPORTANT: Some of the most common FAFSA errors occur when the student and parent mix up their FSA IDs. If you don’t want your financial aid to be delayed, it’s extremely important that each parent and each student create his/her own FSA ID and that they do not share it with ANYONE, even each other.2. Start the FAFSA: fafsa.gov
The 2017–18 FAFSA will be available October 1, 2016—three months earlier than in previous years. Even if your state and school deadlines aren’t for a while, you should complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1 because some types of financial aid may run out if you wait until the last minute to apply.
To get started, go to fafsa.gov and click “Start a New FAFSA”.
TIP: We recommend that the student start the FAFSA using the instructions below. It makes the application process much easier.
- If you are the student: Click “Enter your (the student’s) FSA ID”, enter your FSA ID username and password, and click “Next”.
- If you are the parent: Click “Enter the student’s information”, then provide the student’s name, Social Security number, and date of birth, and click “Next”.
Choose which FAFSA you’d like to complete:
- 2017–18 FAFSA if you will be attending college between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018.
- 2016–17 FAFSA if you will be attending college between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017.
- Both: If you will be attending college during both time periods and haven’t completed your 2016–17 FAFSA yet, complete that first, wait until it processes (1-3 days), then go back in and complete the 2017–18 FAFSA after.
TIP: If you are given the option to complete a “renewal” FAFSA, choose that option. When you choose to renew your FAFSA, your demographic information from the previous year will roll over into your new application, saving you lots of time.
Remember, the FAFSA is not a one-time thing. You must complete a FAFSA for each school year.
Create a Save Key
- Unlike the FSA ID, the save key is meant to be shared. A save key is a temporary password that allows you and your parent(s) to “pass” the FAFSA back and forth. It also allows you to save the FAFSA and return to it later. This is especially helpful if you and your parent are not in the same place.
This is information like your name, date of birth, etc. If you have completed the FAFSA in the past or if you log into the FAFSA with your FSA ID, a lot of your personal information will be pre-populated to save you time. Make sure you enter your personal information exactly as it appears on your Social Security card. (That’s right, no nicknames.)4. School Selection
Two-thirds of precollege FAFSA applicants list only one college on their applications. For many, this is a mistake! You are allowed and encouraged to add every school you’re considering, even if you haven’t applied or been accepted yet. There is no harm in adding schools, so when in doubt, just add the school(s). You can add up to 10 at a time. If you’re applying to more than 10 schools, here’s what you should do.5. Dependency Status
In this section, you’ll be asked a series of specific questions to determine whether or not you are required to provide your parent’s information on the FAFSA.
These dependency guidelines are set by Congress and are different from those used by the IRS. Even if you live on your own, support yourself, and file taxes on your own, you may still be considered a dependent student for federal student aid purposes. If you are determined to be a dependent student, you’ll be required to report your parent’s information. If you’re determined to be an independent student, you won’t have to provide your parent’s information and you can skip the next step.6. Parent Demographics
This is where your parent(s) will provide basic demographic information. Remember that it doesn’t matter if you don’t live with your parent(s); you still must report information about them if you were determined to be a dependent student in the step above.
Start by figuring out who counts as your parent on the FAFSA.
Here is where you and your parent(s) (if applicable) will provide your financial information. This step is incredibly simple if you use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which is available within the FAFSA. This tool allows you to import your IRS tax information into the FAFSA with just a few clicks. Using this tool also may reduce the amount of paperwork you need to provide to your school. So if you’re eligible, use it!
More good news: Since the 2017-18 FAFSA requires earlier (2015) tax information, you’ll have already filed your taxes by the time you start the FAFSA. This means, you’ll be able to transfer your tax information right away and you won’t have to log back in later to update it!
To access the tool, indicate that you’ve “already completed” taxes on the student or parent finances page. If you’re eligible you’ll see an option to “Link To IRS”. Choose that option and follow the prompts.8. Sign & Submit
You’re not finished with the FAFSA until you and your parent (if you’re a dependent student) sign it. The quickest and easiest way to sign your FAFSA is online with your FSA ID.
Note: If you (the student) logged in to the FAFSA with your FSA ID, you won’t need to provide it again on this page, but if you’re a dependent student, your parent will still need to sign before you can completely submit.
Sign and Submit Tips:
- If you or your parent forgot your FSA ID, you can retrieve it.
- Make sure you and your parent don’t mix up your FSA IDs. This is one of the most common errors we see, and why it’s extremely important for each person to create his/her own FSA ID and not share it with anyone.
- Make sure the parent who is using his/her FSA ID to sign the FAFSA chooses the right parent number from the drop-down menu. If your parent doesn’t remember whether he/she was listed as Parent 1 or Parent 2, he/she can go back to the parent demographics section to check.
- If you have siblings, your parent can use the same FSA ID to sign FAFSAs for all of his or her children. Your parent can also transfer his/her information into your sibling’s application by choosing the option provided on the FAFSA confirmation page.
- If you get an error saying that your FSA ID information doesn’t match the information provided on the FAFSA, here’s what you should do (the fourth bullet).
- We recommend signing the FAFSA with an FSA ID because it’s the fastest way to get your FAFSA processed. However, if you and/or your parent are unable to sign the FAFSA electronically with an FSA ID, you can mail in a signature page. From the sign and submit page, select “Other options to sign and submit” and then choose “Print A Signature Page.” Just keep in mind that your FAFSA will take longer to process if you go this route.
I’m finished. What’s next?
Congrats on finishing! You’re one step closer to getting money for college. With the hard part over, check out this page to learn what you should do next.
Nicole Callahan is a Digital Engagement Strategist at Federal Student Aid.
Photo by Getty Images.