Essays

A Guide to the 2017-2018 FAFSA

Introduction

College is getting more expensive every year, but fewer parents are paying for their children’s college education. Since it doesn’t usually make sense to skip college, many students are faced with the seemingly impossible task of paying for college themselves – that’s where the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) comes in. The FAFSA is your gateway to all sorts of student aid. In fact, it’s the only way to get your share of the $170 billion that the government forks out annually.

In addition to opening up the possibility of federal grants, loans, and work-study programs, the FAFSA is also used by each state to determine if you are eligible for certain state grants and scholarships. Since the government views paying for college as your family’s responsibility, the primary purpose of the FAFSA is to determine your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). This number is based primarily on your finances and family situation if you are an independent student. But if you are a dependent student, the FAFSA also takes your parent’s finances and family situation into account. Once you’ve submitted your FAFSA and your EFC has been determined, the Student Aid department of the school that you choose to attend will award you the aid.

If you’re wondering whether it’s worth your time to fill out the FAFSA, be assured that it is. For starters, it’s free, and most students can fill it out in about 30 min if they gather all the information they need ahead of time.

Here are the top three reasons why you absolutely should complete the FAFSA:

The Potential for Free Money: Filling out the FAFSA determines whether you are eligible for Federal Grants. Grants are basically free money for your college education – you won’t have to repay them.
Access to Federal Loans: Federal loans are usually vastly superior to private loans since they have more repayment options and are even subsidized for some students (meaning the government pays the interest while you are in college).
Most Students Get Aid: More than 85% of first-time college attendees get some kind of student aid from the government.

Filling out the FAFSA is a relatively easy process as long as you are properly prepared. That’s why we created this guide – to explain each step necessary to complete the FAFSA online, to provide clarity and explanations for specific questions that may be unclear or difficult to answer, and to provide all the resources students need to make this process as easy as possible.

Topics We’ll Cover:

Who Can Use the FAFSA
When to File the FAFSA
How to Maximize Your Federal Student Aid
A Step-By-Step Guide for Each Section of the FAFSA
Who Can File as an Independent
Who Qualifies as Your “Parent” According to FAFSA
What Happens After You Submit the FAFSA
What to Do if Your FAFSA Gets Selected for Verification
The Different Types of Federal Student Aid
What You Need to Know Before You File

Not Everyone Can Use the FAFSA

If you aren’t sure whether or not you will qualify, it always makes sense to apply anyways. Even if you don’t make the cut for federal assistance, certain state benefits may be available.

General Qualifications

If you are a citizen of the United States you should be eligible for Federal Student Aid if you meet the following qualifications:

You have a Social Security Number
You have a High School Diploma or GED
You are registered with Selective Service (if you are a male over 18)
You are maintaining satisfactory academic progress (usually a “C” average)
You aren’t in default on a Federal Student Loan

Those Without a High School Diploma or GED

You are eligible if you were enrolled in a college or career school before July 1, 2012. You also qualify if you are currently enrolled in an approved career pathway program, and have passed an ability-to-benefit test or have completed six credit hours (or equivalent course work). To be eligible, homeschoolers who don’t live in a state that requires them to obtain a high-school-completion certificate must certify that they have completed a high school education in a homeschool setting that, according to state law, exempts them from being required to attend a state-recognized high school.

Students with Criminal Convictions

If you are currently incarcerated, you have limited eligibility if you aren’t in a state or federal institution. If you are serving time at a different type of institution, you aren’t eligible for Federal Student Loans, but you may be able to secure a Federal Pell Grant.

If you aren’t currently incarcerated (or you will be released before the enrollment deadline), you are eligible for Federal Student Aid unless you were convicted of drug charges while receiving student aid or if you were convicted of certain types of sexual offenses.

Documented Immigrants and Noncitizens

As a documented immigrant or noncitizen, you can use the FAFSA to apply for Federal Student Aid if you are a U.S. National or U.S. Permanent Resident (Green Card holder). You also qualify if you have an I-94 Visa with one of the following designations assigned by the government:

Refugee
Asylum Granted
Cuban-Haitian Entrant (Status Pending)
Conditional Entrant (if issued before April 1, 1980
Victims of human trafficking (T-visa Holders)
Parolee (certain conditions apply)

Undocumented Immigrants and Noncitizens

If you are undocumented, you don’t qualify for Federal Student Aid. However, there may be certain state or private scholarships or grants for which you can apply. If your parents are undocumented, but you are documented and qualify based on one of the previous sections, then you can still use the FAFSA. When asked for certain pieces of your parent’s information, you can indicate that they are from a foreign country. For instance, when asked for their social security number, simply enter “000-00-0000.”

When You File Matters

As Early as Possible

Since much of the funding for different federal and state student aid programs is limited, the earlier you submit the FAFSA, the better your chances of getting the maximum aid for which you qualify. That being said, the earliest you can file used to be January 1st of the year for which you were applying. However, you can now start your application on October 1st of the year before. For example, the FAFSA for the 2017 – 2018 school year became available on October 1, 2016.

Application Due Dates

The deadline for submitting the FAFSA is June 30th if you want to take advantage of federal aid, and you must make updates or corrections by September 15th. For the 2017 – 2018 school year (which starts on July 1st), the deadline for submitting the FAFSA is June 30, 2017.

Federal deadlines aren’t the only ones you must be concerned about – each individual state and school has its own timetable as well. Some states have hard deadlines, while others simply award aid until the funds are depleted. You can use this tool to figure out what your state’s deadlines are, but you will have to check with your school (or potential schools if you haven’t chosen yet) to find out their requirements.

What Happens If You Miss a Deadline?

Unfortunately, if you miss the federal deadline, you won’t be eligible for any federal aid (which is the majority of aid that is available). However, you should still file a FAFSA as you might be able to get some help from your local state. Also, check with the department that handles financial aid at your school – there may be special circumstances that you can take advantage of.

You Will Need Access to Your Parent’s Financial and Tax Information If You Are Considered a “Dependent”

Even if you aren’t living with your parents and they don’t claim you on their taxes, you are usually still considered a dependent if you:

Are younger than 24 years old
Aren’t working on your graduate degree
Aren’t married or supporting children
Aren’t a veteran of the armed forces

The Process Will Be Much Easier If You Gather All the Documents You Need Ahead of Time

Note: Income and tax information from an earlier tax year is now required – for the 2017 – 2018 FAFSA, 2015’s tax return will now be used.

We created checklists to help you gather all the information you need ahead of time. Jump down to the section that best describes your situation.

Independent Students

Your Driver’s License (if you have one)
Your Social Security Card (or number)
Your Current Bank Statements
Your Record of Untaxed Income for 2015
Your 2015 W-2 Forms*
Your 2015 Federal Income Tax Return*

*The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) can be used to fill out your 2015 income data in place of your actual tax returns

Dependent Students

Your Driver’s License (if you have one)
Your Social Security Card (or number)
Your Current Bank Statements
Your 2015 W-2 Forms*
Your 2015 Federal Income Tax Return*
Your Parent’s Social Security Card (or number)
Your Parent’s Current Bank Statements
Your Parent’s Record of Untaxed Income for 2015
Your Parent’s Investment and Business Records
Your Parent’s 2015 W-2 Forms*
Your Parent’s 2015 Federal Income Tax Returns*

*The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) can be used by you and your parents to fill out 2015 income data in place of tax returns

Noncitizen Independent Students

Your Alien Registration Number
Your Driver’s License (if you have one)
Your Current Bank Statements
Your 2015 IRS W-2 Information (if any)
Your 2015 U.S. Federal Tax Returns and 2015 Foreign Tax Returns
Your Record of Untaxed Income for 2015

Noncitizen Dependent Students

Your Alien Registration Number
Your Driver’s License (if you have one)
Your Current Bank Statements
Your 2015 IRS W-2 Information (if any)
Your 2015 U.S. Federal Tax Returns and 2015 Foreign Tax Returns
Your Record of Untaxed Income for 2015
Your Parent’s Current Bank Statements
Your Parent’s Investment and Business Records
Your Parent’s 2015 IRS W-2 Information (if any)
Your Parent’s 2015 U.S. Federal Tax Returns and 2015 Foreign Tax Returns
Your Parent’s Record of Untaxed Income for 2015

There Are Consequences If You Provide Incomplete or Incorrect Information

Since Federal Student Aid can be delayed or denied if you provide inaccurate or incomplete information, it’s vital that you fill out the application completely and accurately (if there are fields that don’t apply to you, enter a “0” if appropriate). Know that if you purposely provide false or misleading information you could face up to $20,000 in fines or 5 years of jail time.

There Are Ways to Maximize Your Federal Student Aid

While everyone can increase their chances of getting the most financial aid possible by applying as early as they can, certain students may be able to further maximize their student aid.

Optimize Your College Savings

If possible, your parents should wait until after you have received your financial aid to give you any money they were planning on supporting you with while you are in college. Here’s why that’s important: the government’s assumption is that you and your parents should be responsible to pay for your education – money that you and your parents have saved is taken into consideration when determining how much “aid” you need. However, FAFSA’s formula doesn’t take your parent’s savings into account at the same rate as your personal savings.

Custodial Arrangements

Note: This tactic will only be useful for you if your parents are divorced or legally separated, and one makes a considerable amount more than the other (including the income from stepparents).

If you are considered to be a dependent student, and your parents are divorced or separated, you will need to enter the financial information for the “custodial” parent. The custodial parent is the parent with whom you’ve lived the most over the last 12 months. If necessary, you can determine this by calculating the number of nights spent with each parent. Keep in mind that you will also have to enter the financial information for the spouse of your custodial parent (stepparent), even if he or she isn’t willing to contribute to your college education.

You could potentially increase the amount of financial aid you receive if you plan ahead and spend more than 50% of your nights living with the parent that has a lower income over a 12 month period. To this end, parents could modify the living arrangements and even the custody agreement with a judge to maximize their student’s need-based aid. However, you need to be careful not to try to cheat the system – living arrangements need to be genuine since college financial aid administrators might require proof (utility bills, rental agreements, official custody arrangements, etc.).

You Can Get Additional Help

While this guide answers a lot of common questions and covers many unique situations, you may find yourself getting stuck on a particular question due to an unusual circumstance. If that happens, make sure to reach out to your school’s (or potential school’s) financial aid department – that department is the middle man for all sorts of federal and state student aid.

Step-by-Step Guide to Filling Out the FAFSA Online

The next section is a step-by-step walkthrough of each part of the FAFSA. While we don’t give extra details for every single question, we do break down each section and provide in-depth guidance for the questions that can be difficult to answer for some students who are in unique situations.

Starting Your FAFSA

Log In

After you navigate to FAFSA’s website, the first step is to log in. You can do that in one of two ways: either log in by entering your personal information or use your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID.

You will almost always want to use your FSA ID (create one if you haven’t already) since it allows for digital signing. If you filled out the FAFSA in years past, you were probably assigned a FAFSA PIN – if that’s the case, then that account will be linked to your new FSA ID.

The only time you will use the “personal information” option to sign in is if you or your parents are trying to log into an application that was already started by the other party using their FSA ID. If you are a dependent student, your parents will need their own FSA ID to sign your FAFSA digitally.

Select Your School Year

According to FAFSA, the school year starts on July 1st and ends on June 30th of the next year. So if you are applying for student aid for classes that begin after July 1, 2017, select the 2017 – 2018 school year.

Note: You must complete a new application each year, so if you are applying for aid for summer classes in the 2016 – 2017 school year, you will need to complete a separate application for the 2017 – 2018 school year as well.

Create a Save Key

When you start a new FAFSA, you will be required to create a “save key.” Be sure to select something memorable and write it down – you (and possibly your parents) will have to use it later. If you need to log in to your FAFSA for any reason, you will be required to provide your save key.

Section 1: Student Demographic Information

This section is where you will enter your basic personal information. Certain aspects (like your date of birth) will be used to determine whether you can file as an independent student.

Name and Social Security Number

Make sure your name matches your social security card – be sure not to enter a nickname. If you are from the Freely Associated States (the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, or the Federated States of Micronesia) and you don’t have a Social Security Number, enter 666 for the first three digits (the remaining digits will be assigned when your FAFSA is processed).

Gender

Enter the gender listed on your birth certificate – even if you identify as another gender. If you are a male between the ages of 18-25, you will be required register with the Selective Service to receive financial aid, if you haven’t already.

Address and State of Residence

When entering your permanent address, make sure it’s not the mailing address of your on-campus housing. For dependent students, this will usually be your parent’s address.

Your state of residence will most likely be the same state that you listed in your permanent address. If you haven’t been a legal resident of your home state for more than five years, additional information may be required to verify your state of residence, which will determine the state you are eligible to receive grants or scholarships from (it’s not necessarily the state in which your school is located).

Section 2: Student Eligibility

The questions in this section are used to determine whether you are eligible for Federal Student Aid, and if you qualify as an independent student.

Citizenship

If you are a citizen or U.S. National, select “U.S. Citizen.” If you are one of the following, select “eligible noncitizen:”

A Permanent Resident (if you have a green card)
An I-94 Visa Holder with a designation that reads: “Refugee,” “Asylum Granted,” “Cuban-Entrant,” or “Conditional Entrant” (if issued before April 1, 1980)
A T-Visa Holder
A resident of the Republic of Palau (PW), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (MH), or the Federated States of Micronesia (FM)

If you have one of the following documents, then you should select “neither citizen nor eligible noncitizen:”

F1 or F2 Student Visa
A J1 or J2 Exchange Visitor Visa
A G-Series Visa

Work-Study

Work-study provides an opportunity for students with financial need to earn money toward their education expenses. Unless you know for sure that you aren’t interested in the work-study program, indicate that you are interested. Since you aren’t committing to anything at this time and you can always turn it down later, there’s really no downside to seeing whether you qualify and what it would look like for you to participate.

Parent’s Highest Level of Schooling

This question only determines your eligibility for certain state scholarships – it doesn’t impact your Federal Student Aid at all. For the purposes of the FAFSA, a parent is either your birth parent or adoptive parent. Don’t include:

Stepparents
Grand Parents
Legal Guardians
Foster Parents

School Selection

For those that aren’t currently enrolled, or haven’t yet made a final decision, make sure you include all the schools that you are interested in attending. It will save time if you include the college you end up enrolling in, rather than having to add the school later. A side benefit to adding more colleges (you can add up to 10) is that you can compare statistics like the cost of attendance and graduation rates to help make your decision.

The order that you list the schools in does matter. Once you’ve added them all, you can change the way they are prioritized on the following screen. While this doesn’t affect your Federal Student Aid at all, states do use this information to help determine whether you qualify for specific grants or other aid.

Dependency Determination

This section is the final source of information used to determine whether you will be considered an independent or dependent student. This decision is important because, in most cases, students who are considered “independent” will receive more aid than those who are “dependent” since the income of the parents of independent students isn’t factored in.

The questions in this section are determined by how you answered questions earlier in the application. For instance, if your birthdate in the first section was before 1994, then you automatically qualify for “independent status,” and you won’t have to answer most of the questions in this section.

To find out whether you are going to be considered an independent or dependent student, answer the following questions. If you answer “no” to each you will be considered “dependent,” but if you answer “yes” to even one question, you are “independent.”

Note: These questions are quoted directly from the Federal Student Aid’s website.

Were you born before January 1, 1994?
As of today, are you married? (Also answer “Yes” if you are separated but not divorced.)
At the beginning of the 2017–18 school year, will you be working on a master’s or doctorate program (such as an M.A., M.B.A., M.D., J.D., Ph.D., Ed.D., graduate certificate, etc.)?
Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training? (If you are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee, are you on active duty for other than state or training purposes?)
Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?*
Do you now have—or will you have—children who will receive more than half of their support from you between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018?
Do you have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through June 30, 2018?
At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a dependent or ward of the court?
Has it been determined by a court in your state of legal residence that you are an emancipated minor or that someone other than your parent or stepparent has legal guardianship of you? (You also should answer “Yes” if you are now an adult but were in legal guardianship or were an emancipated minor immediately before you reached the age of being an adult in your state. Answer “No” if the court papers say “custody” rather than “guardianship.”)
At any time on or after July 1, 2016, were you determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, as determined by (a) your high school or district homeless liaison, (b) the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or (c) the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program?**

* Answer “No” (you are not a veteran) if you (1) have never engaged in active duty (including basic training) in the U.S. armed forces, (2) are currently a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) student or a cadet or midshipman at a service academy, (3) are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee activated only for state or training purposes, or (4) were engaged in active duty in the U.S. armed forces but released under dishonorable conditions. Also answer “No” if you are currently serving in the U.S. armed forces and will continue to serve through June 30, 2018.

Answer “Yes” (you are a veteran) if you (1) have engaged in active duty (including basic training) in the U.S. armed forces or are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee who was called to active duty for other than state or training purposes, or were a cadet or midshipman at one of the service academies and (2) were released under a condition other than dishonorable. Also answer “Yes” if you are not a veteran now but will be one by June 30, 2018.

**If you do not have a determination that you are homeless, but you believe you are an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, answer “No” to the FAFSA questions concerning being homeless. Then contact your financial aid office to explain your situation. “Homeless” means lacking fixed or regular housing. You may be homeless if you are living in shelters, parks, motels, hotels, cars, or temporarily living with someone else because you have nowhere else to go.

Section 5: Parent Demographics

Note: Skip this section and proceed to Section 7 if you will be considered an independent student and your school doesn’t require all students to provide their parent’s financial information.

This section requires basic personal information about student’s parent(s). It is required for dependent students, or students who voluntarily elect to include their parent’s information.

Who Is Considered Your Parent

FAFSA defines a parent as “a biological or adoptive parent or a person determined by the state to be a parent (for example, if the parent is listed on the birth certificate).” Additionally, the following people aren’t considered to be a parent unless they have legally adopted you:

Grandparents
Foster Parents
Legal Guardians
Older Brothers and Sisters
Widowed Stepparents
Aunts and Uncles

Here is where it gets a bit tricky. If your parents have divorced or separated, you will answer questions for the parent that has custody. Your custodial parent is the parent that you live with the majority of the time. If your parents have 50/50 custody, then it might be necessary to calculate the number of nights you have spent with each parent to make this determination.

Important: If your custodial parent has remarried, then you must include your step parent’s personal and financial information – even if he or she refuses to contribute to your college education.

Special Circumstance

There are certain special circumstances that may allow you to submit your FAFSA without your parent’s information, even if you are determined to be “dependent.”

Here are a few examples:

You left home because of an abusive family situation
You cannot contact your parents and are unable to locate them
Your parents are incarcerated
You are between the ages of 21 and 23 and are either homeless, or at risk of being homeless

If one of the above examples (or similar circumstances) applies to you, you should select the option that indicates you have special circumstances that don’t allow you to provide your parent’s information. You will then be able to submit the FAFSA without filling in your parent’s information.

If you go this route, your FAFSA will be submitted, but not fully processed – you immediately need to contact your school’s financial aid office. The staff there may ask for additional evidence to support your claims. The financial aid office will then make a final decision as to whether you can be considered to be an independent student and receive Federal Financial Aid without your parent’s information.

Important: If you are unable to get your parent’s information due to special circumstances or you can’t secure their cooperation, don’t just guess – knowingly providing inaccurate information could have serious consequences.

Filling Out Parent’s Information

When it comes to filling out your parent’s information you have two options. The first option is to fill out the FAFSA together. This requires you both to be present at the same location – you fill out your part, and then your parents complete their part.

The other option is to fill out the information from separate computers. This can be especially useful if you don’t currently live with your parents. Here’s how this works: you fill out your information, and then when you get to the section that asks for your parent’s info, you save and exit the application. Your parents then log in to the application using the “personal information option” on the login screen. They will also need to select the same application year and provide the save key that you created when you started the application. Your parents will then be able to input all the required information themselves. Once they finish their sections, they can save and exit the application.

Your Parent’s Marital Status

There are five options to choose from when describing your parent’s marital status. Remember, this information is supposed to be accurate as of the day that you file the FAFSA. Also, enter their legal status as defined by the state in which they. For instance, if your state has “common law marriage,” then they could technically be married if they’ve lived together for a certain period of time.

Here are the options to choose from:

Never married
Unmarried and both parents living together
Married or remarried
Divorced or separated
Widowed

Your Parent’s Social Security Number

If your parent’s don’t have a social security number (if they are undocumented immigrants, for example), they should enter “000-00-0000.”

Your Parent’s Email Address

Your parent’s email address isn’t required – but it does allow the government to notify them when about your FAFSA’s status. If they don’t wish to be alerted, this field can be left blank.

Your Parent’s Household Size

You or your parents can use the tool that the FAFSA provides to calculate this number. Here’s how you can figure out your parent’s household size according to FAFSA:

Enter the corresponding number for your parents. If they are divorced, separated, or widowed, that number would be “1.” If they are married or remarried, that number will be “2.” This will be auto-generated based on your response to the earlier question about their marital status.
“1” will be entered for yourself.
Enter the number of your parent’s other children that will receive at least 50% of their support from your parents during the school year for which you are applying if they can also answer “no” to every FAFSA dependency question.
Enter the number of other people that live with your parents if your parents will continue to provide half of their support during the entire school year for which you are applying.

Section 6: Parent Financial Information

This section is used to gather information about your parent’s finances to finish determining their portion of the EFC (how much money they are expected to contribute for your college education). Parents will be answering questions about taxes, income, government programs, etc…. There are two main ways to complete tax information: use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) or enter the information manually. Both options are discussed below.

Note: The FAFSA asks for your parent’s marital status as of the day you file, but asks for tax information from 2015. For instance, your parents may have filed as “Married Filing Jointly” in 2015, but have since divorced or separated.

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT)

If your parents use this tool, they can skip a huge chunk of this section as it will be automatically entered. While most parents will be able to use the IRS DRT, those who fall into one of the following categories won’t be able to use the tool:

Those who haven’t filed taxes or filed recently (“recently” is three weeks previously for e-file, and 11 weeks for paper filing)
If they filed as “Married Filing Separately” or “Head of Household”
If your parent’s marital status is “unmarried and both parents living together”
If a 1040X was filed to correct the applicable tax return
If they filed a Puerto Rican or foreign tax return

To use the IRS DRT, your parents need to login to your FAFSA using your personal information, and they need to create a separate FSA ID. If they selected “already completed” when asked about the filing status of their 2015 tax return, there will be an option to “link to the IRS” if your parents are eligible. They can then follow the prompts and have most of their financial information pre-filled.

Income Tax Information

For most parents, this will be a simple process of accessing their tax returns from the appropriate year (2015 returns for the 2017 – 2018 FAFSA) and entering the requested information. But for those who haven’t filed their 2015 tax return yet, it’s a little trickier. They will need to use the income estimator that the FAFSA provides or use the information from their 2014 tax return (if one was filed) if they think that the information will be similar.

Parents who filed a foreign tax return in 2015 will use that document to provide the requested information in U.S. Dollars. Parents can utilize the exchange rate which is constantly updated by the Federal Reserve, or they can use this handy calculator that does the math for them.

Displaced Worker

To determine whether your one or both of you parents are displaced workers, verify whether they satisfy one of the following conditions:

They are drawing unemployment benefits after being laid off or losing a job and are unlikely to return to their previous occupation.*
They have been laid off, or received a layoff notice from their employer.**
They were self-employed, but are now unemployed due to a natural disaster or poor economic conditions.
He or she is married to an active-duty member of the armed forces and is having difficulty finding employment or upgrading employment if he or she is underemployed.
He or she is married to an active-duty member of the armed forces and lost his or her job to a permanent relocation caused by a change of duty station.
He or she qualifies as a “displaced homemaker.”***

*Your parents also qualify if they used up their unemployment benefits or didn’t qualify due to insufficient earnings or because their type of work didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits under state law.

**If your parent(s) voluntarily resigned from his or her job, or was fired with cause, he or she is not considered to be a displaced worker

***A parent can qualify as a “displaced homemaker” if he or she provided unpaid services to the family in the past (as a stay-at-home mom, or stay-at-home dad), isn’t supported by his or her spouse any longer, and is having difficulty finding unemployment or upgrading employment if he or she is underemployed.

Be aware that if you or your parent indicates that he or she is a displaced worker, you may be required to provide documentation to the financial aid administrator at your college, which could include:

A copy of the layoff notice
Unemployment compensation paperwork
A letter from your parent’s former employer stating that he or she is unlikely to be reinstated within the next six months

Federal Benefit Programs

The purpose of these questions is to determine whether you qualify for special state scholarships or grants that may be available to those who are receiving certain benefits like Medicaid or SNAP. Answering these questions won’t reduce or disqualify you for any Federal Student Aid.

Check the appropriate box if either you or anyone in your parents household received benefits from the program during 2015 or 2016.

Note: If you first filled out this section prior to the end of the listed year (2016 in this case), and members of your parents household then received benefits before December 31, 2016, you must return to the FAFSA and update your response.

Additional Financial Information

The total from this subsection is deducted from your parent’s taxable income. Your parents should only include the taxable portion of any of these earnings.

Untaxed Income

This subsection asks for specific compensation amounts that are not taxed, but are considered part of your parent’s income for the purposes of the FAFSA and are taken into consideration when determining the EFC. All of the figures and amounts should be exact and match documentation such as tax returns and W-2’s if at all possible.

Make sure not to confuse “child support paid” and “child support received.” Any child support that your parents were legally required to pay is deducted from your parent’s taxable income and is included in the previous section. In this section, you must list the amount of any child support that was paid to your parent.

Account Balances and Net Worth

The amounts of account balances should match the last bank statement previous to the date that the FAFSA is filed – if your application is selected for verification, having a copy of those bank statements will come in handy. You should not include any student financial aid in these balances.

Most other assets, including investments, must be reported unless they fall into one of the following categories:

The family’s primary home
Any small businesses owned by your family if there are less than 100 employees, and it’s controlled (50% or more ownership) by your family
Life Insurance Plans
A Family Farm (if the family also lives and works there)
Personal Possessions (cars, electronics, jewelry, etc…)

Section 7: Student Financial Information

Whether you are a dependent or independent student, you will have to fill out this section. If you are a dependent student and didn’t have a job in 2015, select “not going to file” on the first screen. You will enter a “0” in most of the fields.

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT)

You can use the IRS DRT to pre-fill most of the required information in this section if you are eligible. It saves quite a bit of time and usually more accurate, so you should use it if you can.

You are ineligible to use the DRT if:

You don’t have a valid Social Security Number
You haven’t filed taxes, or you filed recently (“recently” is three weeks previously for e-file, 11 weeks for paper filing)
You filed as “Married Filing Separately” or “Head of Household”
A 1040X was filed to correct the applicable tax return
You filed a Puerto Rican or foreign tax return

To use the IRS DRT, you must have an FSA ID. If you selected “already completed” when asked about the filing status of your 2015 tax return, there will be an option to “link to the IRS” if you’re eligible. After that, simply follow the prompts and your tax information will be automatically pre-filled.

Entering Your Tax Information Manually

If you can’t or don’t want to use the IRS DRT, you will have to enter your tax information manually. If you’ve already filed a U.S. return, this should be a breeze. However, if you filed a foreign return or haven’t filed yet (and you had a job with taxable income in 2015), then this process could be a bit more challenging. If you haven’t filed yet, you will have to use the income estimator tool provided by FAFSA to calculate your income from 2015.

If you filed your 2015 tax return online, you might be able to access the information from the tax program you used. The information also could be saved to your computer. For instance, if you used a program like “TurboTax” you should have been prompted to save a .pdf file to your computer that contains your entire return.

For those who filed a foreign return (or had income that was taxable in 2015 by a foreign country), you must enter the applicable information in U.S. Dollars. The exchange rate provided by the Federal Reserve can be used to convert the amounts, or you can use this calculator developed by Google.

What to Do If Your Marital Status Has Changed

For those who don’t have the same marital status that they had in 2015 may have a difficult time answering some of the tax questions. The following list explains how to navigate some of the common change-in-marital-status questions:

If you are married and filed separate returns for 2015: Use this table to determine which type of tax return you should indicate that you filed
If you filed a joint return for 2015, but are no longer married: Subtract your former spouse’s tax return information (only answer FAFSA questions with your own information)
If you did not file a joint return for 2015, but you are now married: Add your spouse’s tax information from 2015 to yours (answer FAFSA questions with information about yourself and your spouse)
If you filed a joint return for 2015, but are now married to a different person: Subtract your former spouse’s income and information and add in your current spouse’s information (only answer FAFSA questions with information about yourself and your current spouse)

Displaced Workers

You (or your spouse) may qualify as a displaced worker if you:

Are drawing unemployment benefits after being laid off or losing a job and you aren’t likely to return to their previous occupation*
Were laid off, or you received a layoff notice from your employer**
Were self-employed, but are now unemployed due to a natural disaster or poor economic conditions
Are married to an active-duty member of the armed forces, and are having difficulty finding employment or upgrading employment if you are underemployed
Are married to an active-duty member of the armed forces and you lost your job due to a permanent relocation caused by your spouse being assigned to a new duty station
Qualify as a “displaced homemaker”***

*You also qualify if you used up your unemployment benefits, or you didn’t qualify for unemployment due to insufficient earnings or because your type work didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits under state law.

**If you voluntarily resigned from your job, or you were fired with cause, you are not considered to be a displaced worker.

***You qualify as a displaced homemaker if you provided unpaid services for your family in the past (as a stay-at-home mom, or stay-at-home dad), you aren’t supported by your spouse any longer, and you are having difficulty finding employment or upgrading your employment if you are underemployed.

If you indicate that you are a dislocated worker, you may be required to provide documentation to the financial aid administrator at your college.

They could request information like:

A copy of the layoff notice
Unemployment compensation paperwork
A letter from your former employer stating that you are unlikely to be reinstated within the next 6 months

Federal Benefit Programs

The purpose of these questions is to determine whether you qualify for special state scholarships or grants that may be available to those who are receiving certain benefits like Medicaid or SNAP, so answering them won’t reduce your potential Federal Student Aid. Check the appropriate box if either you or your spouse received any of the listed benefits during 2015 or 2016.

Note: If you first filled out this section prior to the end of the listed year (2016 in this case), and you then received benefits before December 31, 2016, you must return to the FAFSA and update your response.

Additional Financial Information

The total from this subsection is deducted from your taxable income. Only include the taxable portion of any of these earnings.

Untaxed Income

This subsection asks for specific compensation amounts that are not taxed, but are considered to be part of your income for the purposes of the FAFSA and are taken into consideration when determining your EFC. All of the figures and amounts should be exact and match documentation such as your tax return and W-2’s if at all possible.

Make sure not to confuse “child support paid” and “child support received.” Any child support that you were legally required to pay is deducted from your taxable income. That information is entered in the previous section, “Additional Financial Information.” In this section, you are required to list the amount of any child support that was paid to you or your spouse.

Account Balances and Net Worth

The amounts of account balances should match the last bank statement previous to the date that the FAFSA is filed. Plan ahead – if your application is selected for verification, you should have ready access to those bank statements. Be careful not to include any student financial aid in these balances.

Most other assets, including investments, must be reported unless they fall into one of the following categories:

Your primary home
Any small businesses you own if there are less than 100 employees, and it’s controlled (50% or more ownership) by you
Life Insurance Plans
A Family Farm (if you also live and work there)
Personal Possessions (cars, electronics, jewelry, etc…)

Section 8: Sign and Submit

Dependent Students

If you are a dependent Student, then you and your parents will both have to sign. Keep in mind that you and your parents cannot share an FSA ID, you must both create unique IDs with your own personal information.

Option 1: FSA ID

This method is vastly superior as it allows you to sign electronically, rather than having to print and send in your signatures. It may result in more receiving more aid since some is given out on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the other method can take an extra few weeks. It’s both cheaper and easier since it doesn’t require a printer or stamps.

Option 2: Print and Sign

This method takes much longer and requires you to print a signature page, sign it, and then send it to the appropriate address, which can result in processing being delayed by several weeks.

What Happens After You Submit the FAFSA

FAFSA Verification

Since about one-third of all FAFSAs are flagged for verification, you may have to provide additional documentation for specific data you entered. Colleges are allowed to choose additional FAFSAs to verify as well – some even elect to review every FAFSA that is submitted.

What to Do If Your FAFSA Is Flagged for Verification

Your only good option at this point is to provide the requested information as quickly as possible. The faster you can get your FAFSA verified, the sooner you can secure financial aid. Don’t try and support incorrect data – if you made a mistake, own up to it and correct your answer.

How to Reduce Your FAFSA’s Chance of Getting Flagged

First and foremost, don’t try and fudge the numbers – you will most likely get caught. After you complete your FAFSA, make sure to go back through and double check that you accurately completed each section. Another way to reduce the chances that your FAFSA will be flagged is to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) if you are able. That will ensure that your FAFSA exactly matches the IRS’s data.

The Student Aid Report

If you FAFSA doesn’t get flagged for verification, you should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) several weeks after you file if you signed electronically.

What’s on the Student Aid Report

Your SAR will have a brief summary of your FAFSA, and will specify your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC isn’t what you think your family could afford to pay; rather it’s the basis for determining your comparative “need.” The idea is that the government tries to award the most “need-based financial aid” to those families and students who have the least chance of attending college without it.

The SAR also shows an estimate of your eligibility for student aid, including your eligibility for:

Federal Pell Grants
Federal Student Loans
Work-Study Programs

Listed on your SAR is information about all the schools you identified on your FAFSA – such cost of attendance, graduation rates, and transfer rates. Your chosen schools are also sent a copy of your SAR called the Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR). The colleges’ financial aid department will then use that information to create your financial aid package.

If you are interested in attending a college that’s not listed on your FAFSA and want them to get a copy of your ISIR, you can give them access by providing your Data Release Number that’s listed on your SAR.

Where Your Student Aid Report Is Sent

If you provided a valid email address, you will receive a link to the electronic form of your Student Aid Report (SAR) after your FAFSA is processed. If you didn’t provide an email address, the report will be sent to the permanent address listed on your FAFSA. Obviously, you will get access more quickly if you opted to receive it via email.

Making Changes

If any of the information on your SAR is incorrect, make sure to correct the information on your FAFSA as soon as possible. You can do this by logging in and using your save key to access your FAFSA. If you have lost or forgotten your save key, you can also make changes by writing them on your physical copy of the SAR and signing and sending it in.

The Different Types of Federal Student Aid

Grants

The first (and best) kind of Federal Student Aid is grants. Since grants are basically free money, you should always take advantage of them if you can. The next few sections discuss the types of grants for which you may qualify.

Federal Pell Grants

To qualify for a Federal Pell Grant, you must be an undergraduate with financial need who isn’t incarcerated, and hasn’t been convicted of a sexual offense. The amount maximum amount that can be awarded is $5,920. The actual amount that you are awarded is based on the difference between your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and the Cost of Attendance (CoA) at your college. A couple of other factors include your status as a full-time or part-time student, and whether you plan to attend school for a full academic year or less.

Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant

Only those undergraduates with extreme financial need at participating schools qualify for the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (FSEOG). This grant is awarded to students who received a Federal Pell Grant, and have the most relative financial need.

The maximum amount given out is $4,000 a year, while the actual amount that you receive is dependent on your financial need, when you apply (the funds available to your school are limited), and the amount of any other financial aid that you were awarded.

TEACH Grant

The $4,000 TEACH Grant is only available to potential teachers who are enrolled in an eligible program at a participating school. Additionally, to qualify for this grant you must be maintaining certain academic standards (generally a 3.25 GPA), have completed TEACH Grant Counseling (this must be done every year the grant is awarded), and sign a TEACH Grant Agreement to Serve.

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant

To qualify for the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant, you have to meet every eligibility requirement for the Federal Pell Grant, except a low Estimated Family Contribution. If your EFC is too high to be considered for a Federal Pell Grant, you can still qualify for this grant if you are a son or daughter of a member of the Armed Forces who died as a result of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11 (the beneficiary must have been under 24, or enrolled at least part-time in college when his or her parent or guardian was killed).

The award for this grant is $5,815 for the 2017 – 2018 school year, but it cannot be greater than your cost of attendance for the current school year. If you qualify, this grant will be paid through the financial aid department at your college.

Loans

While Federal Student Loans aren’t quite as desirable as grants (since you have to pay them back), they are still a huge help, and can save you tons of money since they typically come with much lower interest rates than rates that are offered by private lenders. Another great perk of Federal Student Loans is that they have great repayment options.

Subsidized Loans

The main benefit of subsidized loans is that the government pays your interest while you are enrolled in school (you must be enrolled at least half-time), during the six months after you graduate or stop attending, and during a period of deferment.

To qualify for this type of loan, you must have demonstrated financial need. The amount you can borrow is determined by your college’s financial aid department and cannot exceed your financial need.

Unsubsidized Loans

Unsubsidized loans are similar to subsidized loans, but you are responsible for paying the interest that accumulates while you are attending college. Since you don’t have to demonstrate financial need, most students qualify for this type of aid. The amount you can borrow is determined by your cost of attendance and how much other financial aid you receive.

Direct PLUS Loans

Students who are working on a graduate or professional degree usually qualify for a Direct PLUS Loan if they are enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school and don’t have an “adverse credit history.” This type of loan is unique in that parents can also use this loan to help pay for the college expenses of their children (if he or she is an undergraduate). You can borrow the full amount that it costs to attend college, minus any other financial aid that is being received.

Work-Study Programs

The last type of Federal Student Aid is basically a part-time job. Work-study jobs can be on or off campus and is related to your courses whenever possible. The compensation is at least equal to the Federal Minimum Wage. However, you may be paid more for certain types of work, or if certain skills are required. The total award depends on when your application is processed, your level of financial need, and your school’s funding.

Take Action

While the FAFSA can be quite confusing if you aren’t adequately prepared, completing the application isn’t something you have to dread. If you have all the necessary documents in hand, and you are prepped with what to expect, then you can fly through it. The sooner you start your FAFSA, the sooner you can finalize your college plans with the peace of mind that comes from knowing you got every scrap of financial aid you deserve.