Every year, the Department of Education distributes $150 billion in federal student aid through grants, loans and work-study.
Most students qualify, but in order to get their share of these funds for college they need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA. Students can begin completing the FAFSA for the 2020-2021 school year on October 1st, and because FAFSA funds are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis, they will want to complete the form as soon as possible.
While the process of applying for federal student aid may feel overwhelming, recent updates to the FAFSA have made it simpler and more stream-lined.
CNBC Make It filled out the FAFSA ourselves to see what it takes. Here is a step-by-step guide:
Students will need to share their FAFSA with schools they are interested in applying to. For this reason, students should make a list of schools they are potentially interested in before they even begin filling out the form.
As part of completing their application, students will be able to look up the federal school codes of colleges and universities they are interested in sending their information to.
Making a list of target schools is a good way for students to inspire and motivate themselves to complete the FAFSA.
The FAFSA determines how much financial assistance students qualify for, which is why applicants must submit documentation about their family's financial status. Before starting the FAFSA, applicants should be sure to gather all of the forms and documents they'll need.
To complete the FAFSA, students will need:
Having prepared a list of schools and documentation, the next step is for applications to visit the FAFSA website (https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa) or the myStudentAid app.
To log into the site, students and parents need to create a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID, which will require making a username and password. Once applicants have created an FSA ID, they can start the FAFSA, save their progress and log in and out as they wish.
Each year there is a nine-month period during which students can submit financial aid applications for both the current year and future years.
Students should carefully select which year's FAFSA application they would like to complete:
The FAFSA itself is broken into seven sections: student demographics, school selection, dependency status, parent demographics, financial information, sign and submit, and confirmation.
Complete each of these sections carefully, making sure that the information is accurate:
Once applicants have accurately input all of the necessary information, press "submit."
The Department of Education says that online FAFSA applications are typically processed within three to five days, and that paper applications are typically processed within seven to 10 days.
After their application is processed, students should receive a copy of their Student Aid Report, which includes their Expected Family Contribution and determines their eligibility for Pell Grants. An applicant's aid report will be shared with the colleges they listed on their FAFSA application.
After a student has been admitted to a college, colleges use the information on their aid report to determine how much they will provide. Many schools will ask students to verify the information on their aid report, or to complete a College Scholarship Service Profile, which is administered by The College Board. The profile is used by hundreds of schools across the country and can help students access their share of $9 billion in non-federal financial aid.
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