Financial Aid (Pt. 1): FAFSA

In a series of posts, I'm going to break down the financial aid options available to students across the United States. When I started college, I had no idea what was out there to help me pay for what I believed was an insane amount of money to study.

If anyone has gone to college, they have probably at least heard of the FAFSA in passing, which is an acronym for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This article is going to attempt to outline what it does and how students, both prospective and current, can check their eligibility.

So what is the FAFSA anyway?

The FAFSA is an application that allows students to check for their eligibility to receive federal financial aid, or money from the government to fund your studies. It's available through the U.S. Department of Education and is typically released at the beginning of every year.

Your application will yield results that determine whether or not you're available for federal grants, loans or work-study funds.

How would I apply?

It's actually pretty easy to access the application! You can check out the website and file online, download the form and print it out to file by mail, or you can go to your college's financial aid office to see if they have the forms there.

Once you start your application, you'll need to have some documents on-hand in order to fill out the required information. Here is a non-inclusive list of some of the information that you might need:
  • your social security number
  • your parents' social security numbers (if you are dependent)
  • a driver's license, if you have one
  • federal tax information for you, your parents (if you are dependent), and/or your spouse (if you are married)
  • records of any untaxed income
  • information regarding your bank account balances, investments or any real estate assets
You'll also want to have a list of the school(s) you're looking at for your studies.

My application is completed! Now what?

Now that everything is completed and submitted, your information is on its way to the financial aid offices of the schools that you listed in your application. They will then individually review your information to determine the amount of federal, state and school-based financial aid that you would eligible for, per college.

Within 3 weeks of submitting your application, you'll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) highlighting all of your FAFSA data from the Department of Education.

So when do I get my money?

If you're expecting a check in the mail from the government, unfortunately that's not how this works.

Once your application is processed, any schools listed on your FAFSA that you received an acceptance to study from will send you an award letter outlining how much and what types of aid you are eligible for.

Follow the steps outlined in the award letter, usually in cooperation with the school's financial aid office, to proceed with accepting the amount offered and to discuss details.

Final Notes

I personally was discouraged from applying for the FAFSA due to my family's financial situation, which is a common point I've heard among my friends group. In the end, you really don't have anything to lose by filling out the form and seeing if you can benefit from any financial aid. Over the past few years, the process has migrated electronically and is a lot easier to access, which really presents no excuses for students looking for help!

This is just Part 1 of this series, so look out for more in the future!

Important Terms

  1. federal grant - financial aid from the government that does not need to be repaid
  2. federal loan - a loan funded by the government that is borrowed and requires repayment with interest
  3. work-study funds - a program that provides the opportunity for part-time employment during school
  4. dependent student - defined as someone who does not meet the criteria listed here
  5. untaxed income - this could be child support, interest income, and veterans non-education benefits, for example
  6. award letter - "an offer from a college or career school that states the type and amount of financial aid the school is willing to provide if you accept admission and register to take classes at that school" (source)


Federal Student Aid - U.S. Department of Education

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