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FAFSA 101: How to fill out the form that can help unlock financial aid opportunities

You’ve likely seen these five important letters on your checklist as you prepare to apply for college ―  FAFSA. While they can seem complicated, one thing every student needs to recognize is this ― all students should consider completing the FAFSA.

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and it’s an important step as you make decisions related to financing your post-secondary education. The FAFSA helps determine what types of financial aid you might qualify for, including grants, loans and scholarship opportunities.

To many students, FAFSA may seem complicated or daunting, but Chris Conway, director of financial education initiatives at University of Phoenix, said that isn’t as hard as you may think it is. In this Q&A, she shares some information relating to this important process, addressing several common questions students may have related to the FAFSA.

Q. Is the FAFSA hard to fill out?
A. The FAFSA isn’t as hard as you may think it is! Updates to the process have made it easier with skip logic and the ability to import tax returns from the IRS. This worksheet gives you a preview of what the FAFSA looks like.

Q. I won’t qualify for financial aid, so why bother?
A. Many people make the assumption that they won’t qualify for financial aid, so they think it’s not worth completing the FAFSA. Not so! Income isn’t the only factor considered, and, by completing the FAFSA, you may find that there is some aid available besides loans.

Q. Will my credit history be considered?
A. Credit history is not used in the FAFSA process, and it is not a factor relating to Federal undergraduate loans and grants. Credit history may be a factor in approval of GradPLUS student loans.

Q. Does filling out the FAFSA paperwork mean I automatically qualify for financial aid?
A. The FAFSA is the starting point for figuring out what types of aid you may qualify for, but it is not a guarantee of financial aid itself.

Q. Do I have to fill out the FAFSA more than once?
A.   Yes. You’ll need to complete a FAFSA each year.

Q. What do I need to get started?
A. Before you start filling out the form, get the following information ready:

  • FSA ID. This username and password will give you log-in access to certain websites within the U.S. Department of Education, including the FAFSA form. You can request one while completing the FAFSA, but getting it in advance speeds the process.
  • Social Security Number
  • Driver’s License Number
  • Tax records or use of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). To use the DRT, you’ll need to know the address you used on your taxes. PRO TIP: Use the DRT if you are eligible. It will save you submitting documents later and eliminate common errors.
  • Financial information regarding untaxed income and assets (bank accounts, investments)

Q. How long will it take to fill out the FAFSA?
A. The online FAFSA takes an average of 30 minutes to complete. Give yourself time when completing the FAFSA so you don’t rush and make errors. Read the instructions and definitions to make sure you’re entering all required information.

Q. How long will it take to get results?
A. Within a few days of filing the FAFSA, a Student Aid Report (SAR) is generated that shows your eligibility for federal financial aid. The SAR will show your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is used to determine how much aid you are eligible to receive.

Q. What about state aid, as opposed to federal?
A. Eligibility for some state aid is dependent on the FAFSA. If you are hoping to receive state financial aid, submit the FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1 each year since some state aid funds will run out.

Q. What does it mean if I’m selected for verification?
A. Don’t panic if this happens. This just means that you will need to provide more information about data on your FAFSA. Some are randomly selected for verification.

Q. What are some common errors that I can avoid?
A. High school name doesn’t match. Be sure to enter the full name of your high school and verify it matches any applications you submit.

Typos. Double check your name, social security number and date of birth before submitting.

Q. What help is available for completing the FAFSA?
A. The FAFSA website has “More Help” links, a “Help” button, a “FAFSA Help” page with FAQs and a “Contact Us” link. Through “Contact Us,” you can email your questions, and even conduct a live chat in English or Spanish with support. The myStudentAid mobile app has ways for contacting for more support as well.

You can also contact your university enrollment rep if you have questions through the process. For more information on filling out the FAFSA, click here.

The FAFSA isn’t as hard as you may think it is!

— Chris Conway, Director of financial education initiatives, University of Phoenix