Skip to Main Content Skip to bottom Skip to Chat, Email, Text

How to fill out the FAFSA® form

At a glance

  • Filling out the FAFSA form is the first step toward determining your eligibility for federal student aid, including grants, scholarships and loans.
  • Make sure to choose the right FAFSA application for the academic year in which you plan to attend school, know the deadlines, have your tax returns and other financial paperwork ready, and watch out for details like which tax withholdings to report on the FAFSA application.
  • Learn more about financial aid, the FAFSA form and how you can fund your education at University of Phoenix!

Why is the FAFSA form important?

If you want to apply for federal student aid, including grants and loans, then the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form is your new best friend. Filling it out correctly can potentially save you thousands of dollars by possibly confirming your eligibility for grants, which don’t need to be repaid (for students who qualify), and by allowing you to obtain a federal student loan, which offers low interest rates and several repayment options.

It is the key, in other words, to knowing how you can pay for college.

Since filling out the FAFSA form correctly is so important, you need to be prepared. In addition to having a variety of financial information ready, you should get familiar with some common pitfalls and best practices ahead of time. In this way, you can avoid delays and get it right the first time.

Discover all the ways University of Phoenix can help you save time and money on your degree.

Avoiding FAFSA fails

How can you mess up your FAFSA form? As it turns out, there’s no shortage of ways!

Mistake #1: Missing the deadline

Don’t …

Wait too long to fill out the FAFSA application. That can lead to missing deadlines established by the federal or state government or by the school.

Do …

Be sure to complete and submit the FAFSA application in a timely manner to meet deadlines. The FAFSA application is usually available online starting Oct. 1 for the following school year. It is important to note that for the 2024-25 academic year, the FAFSA form is expected to be delayed until sometime in December 2023.

Most students find it easiest to fill it out online, but you can also print out a PDF in English or Spanish (or request a printout), complete it by hand and then mail it in.

For the 2023-24 academic year, the FAFSA due date is June 30, 2024, with any corrections or updates due by Sept. 14, 2024.

Keep in mind that each state and each school may have their own deadlines as well. (And the earlier you apply, the better: Some state grant programs run out of money by the end of the year.)

read similar articles

5 financial aid myths debunked

Mistake #2: Bungling the details

Don’t …

  • Create your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID after you begin completing the form. It opens you up to possible processing delays or errors.
  • Use nicknames or anything unofficial on your application. It’s important to list your name and Social Security number exactly as they appear on your Social Security card.
  • Pay money to complete the online form. It’s not necessary. Be sure you are on the official FAFSA website.

Do …

  • Create your FSA account first. The username and password you create will make up your FSA ID. Having a FSA ID can simplify signing your form and promissory notes, accessing information and avoiding a common processing error when your verified FAFSA details (name, date of birth and Social Security number) don’t match information on the form.
  • Make sure you fill out the right form. Check to see that you have the correct form for the academic year in which you plan to attend school. According to Chris Conway, director of financial literacy at University of Phoenix, there are usually two FAFSA forms accessible on the FAFSA website at a time.

“Simply put, the form you fill out should align with the school year you’re seeking aid for,” Conway explains.

For instance, the 2023-24 school year runs from July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2024. “Ask the financial aid team at your college if you’re unsure which form you should use,” Conway adds. “For example, at University of Phoenix, we provide a notification in the student portal.”

Mistake #3: Not being prepared

Don’t …

Mail your financial documents to the U.S. Department of Education. You need them to complete the FAFSA application, but you don’t send them to the U.S. Department of Education.

Do …

Collect your paperwork ahead of time. Completing the FAFSA application will go more smoothly if you have the following ready:

a. Driver’s license

b. Alien registration number if you’re not a U.S. citizen

c. Past tax returns, including W-2s

d. Details on any untaxed income like child support, interest and veterans’ non-education benefits

e. Details on checking and savings account balances and investments, including real estate (but not your primary residence)

FAFSA best practices

It’s not enough to avoid mistakes. Here are some best practices for getting it right the first time.

Take your time

Read all questions and instructions carefully, paying close attention to definitions of certain terms, including:

  • Parents
  • Legal guardianship
  • Number of family members
  • Net worth of investments
  • Taxable college grants and scholarships

You’ll also need to assess whether you’re a dependent or independent student in a designated section of the FAFSA application. Dependent students must provide their parents’ financial information as well as their own so that their eligibility for financial aid can be determined.

Independent students must report their own information and, if married, that of their spouse. (Additional clarity on dependency status can be found online.)

Keep in mind that the FAFSA definition of what is considered a dependent student is separate from IRS dependency guidelines. You may still be defined as a dependent student for FAFSA purposes even if you file your own taxes and pay your own bills. If FAFSA determines that you are a dependent student but you haven’t provided your parents’ information, your form may not be processed and you may not be eligible for financial aid.

read similar articles

5 ways to maximize your financial aid award

Report any changes to income or marital status

If your financial situation has changed significantly since filing your tax return (think job loss, divorce or marriage), it’s possible to have your financial aid adjusted. Complete the form and submit it as you normally would, then contact the school you plan to attend and explain how your financial situation has changed.

It’s important to update as necessary because a change in marital or financial status could mean a change in your aid award.

If you need to make a correction, simply log in to the FAFSA homepage, go to your online form and then choose “Make Corrections.” You can correct any field except for your Social Security number.

If you wish to add a school after your FAFSA form has been processed, you can log in and, on the My FAFSA page, select Add/Change Schools and then follow the instructions to submit your revisions.

Take advantage of technology

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) automatically transfers your tax details into the FAFSA form. It’s a good idea to use this option if it’s offered, since it saves timeeliminates mistakes and potentially reduces the amount of paperwork you may need to submit to your school later.

You shouldn’t need to change any of the answers since they’ll come directly from your tax return. It can also help you sidestep simple mistakes in providing your income tax information. You’ll need to provide your assessed income tax liability, for example, which is different from the amount of income tax withheld or your adjusted gross income. Using the IRS DRT lets you bypass this common error.

As always, however, you’ll need to double-check everything, even the automated replies, to ensure you’ve responded to every question.

Pay attention to college order

You’ll need to list at least one college when you complete the FAFSA application, and you can add up to 10 colleges when applying online (unless you know for sure which school you’re attending).

The schools you’re considering attending will need the FAFSA form to determine whether you’re eligible for federal student aid and, if so, how much. Colleges can’t see the other schools you are applying to.

So, list your desired schools in the right order. Some states may require you to list at least one eligible in-state school if you are applying for state aid. For example, in Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, state grant awards are made to the first in-state college listed on your FAFSA application.

Other states, like South Carolina and Vermont, specifically request you put the schools you’re most likely to attend at the top of your list. Include all schools you are interested in, whether or not you have applied yet.

However, each state may have different criteria or guidelines that need to be followed to be considered for their state grant programs. As such, if you are interested in applying for state grants that are available in your state, it is important to check with your state grant issuing agency.

Sign on the dotted line

One very common mistake, after painstakingly completing every section of the FAFSA form, is neglecting to sign your form with your FSA ID and submitting it!

Once you see the confirmation, you’ll know the form has been successfully submitted. Whew! Don’t forget to check your email (and spam folder) for any messages concerning your financial aid.

Just to be safe, you may want to print a copy of the online confirmation since it provides some details not shown in the email confirmation.

Filling out the FAFSA form may not be rewarding in the moment, but the potential savings on your college education absolutely are.


Dawn Handschuh has been putting pen to paper for more than 30 years, writing widely on topics related to student lending, personal finances, everyday money management and retirement planning. She makes her home in Connecticut with her husband and two energetic German shepherds.


want to read more like this?

University of Phoenix logo


     About University of Phoenix

Rise like
a Phoenix

As pioneers in online higher education since 1989, University of Phoenix is an accredited online university for working adults. We are proud to offer quality educational pathways through flexible, career-focused online degrees, certificates and professional development courses that fit into your life and options to save you time and money. Our students are supported every step of the way, including career services for life.

Let us help you take the most direct path to your future career goals. We’re ready when you are.

Online degrees

More than 100 online programs aligned to 300+ careers.

Online courses and certificates

Explore professional development and earn credentials.

Ways to save

Learn ways you can save as you pursue your goals.

Let us help you jumpstart your goals. Connect with us.