The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form is the most important document for any perspective college student. It is the first step for nine different federal grant programs, 605 state scholarship programs and countless private aid packages. Innumerable institutions, from the smallest community college to the largest Ivy League school, rely on the FAFSA to make financial aid decisions.

Why does the FAFSA matter so much?

Simple: the FAFSA is important because it’s the most efficient way of calculating financial need. By using the answers you provide on the FAFSA, the Federal Student Aid department is able to calculate your expected family contribution (EFC).
As the name suggests, EFC is nothing more than the amount of money one might reasonably expect you and your family to put towards education fees. The difference between EFC and total college expenses is deemed your financial need.
Shortly after filing your FAFSA you will receive the student aid report (SAR). The SAR is a copy of the answers you provided on the FAFSA, provided so you can check for errors and make revisions if necessary. The SAR also tells you how much to expect in award by way of federal need- based aid (such as the Pell Grant and Stafford Loan).
Your FAFSA results are also submitted to your college financial aid department, where your EFC is used to establish which (if any) aid packages you’re eligible for.

How do I use the FAFSA?

All you have to do is file your FAFSA and the US Student Financial Aid department does the rest. After they process your form it’ll be sent to your prospective colleges immediately. You’ll also have the SAR in hand, in case you apply for a private scholarship that requires FAFSA results during their consideration process.

How do I submit a FAFSA form?

First, you want to make sure to have certain information close at hand to answer the questions. You’ll need the following:

  • Social Security Number
  • Driver’s License
  • Current bank statements
  • Latest tax returns for you and your spouse
  • Parents’ latest tax returns (for dependent students)
  • Any relevant business and investing information, including mortgage information

Once you have this information, you can either file your FAFSA online here, by mail or through a professional preparation service. The form has around 130 questions and shouldn’t take longer than 45 minutes to complete.

What else do I need to know?

To expedite the processing of your FAFSA make sure your tax returns are up to date. If you are filing as a dependant, this pertains to your parents as well.
Sometimes a family will have expenses unaccounted for in the standardized FAFSA. An example might be exorbitant medical bills. If you have a unique situation, contact your financial aid department and notify them. This will make sure you’re aid package is prepared with full understanding of your financial situation.
While you can file by mail or preparation service, the fastest and cheapest way is to file online. The deadline for filing your FAFSA is generally June 30th, prior to the traditional September semester start date. Make sure to file as early as possible; many aid programs are awarded on a first-come first-serve basis so it’s to your advantage to get in before the crowd.