Empower Blog

September 27, 2021

Your Guide to the FAFSA

Getting a student ready for college should be an exciting time for the whole family! But some aspects of the process, such as applying for financial aid, can seem a bit more challenging than others. At CommunityAmerica, our College and Career Planning services can help you navigate the complexities of college planning, including filling out the FAFSA.

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and completing it is how you apply for federal student aid, such as federal grants, work-study or loans. Many scholarships also require FAFSA information, so it's important to fill it out correctly and on time. Check with the schools you’re interested in to find out their FAFSA priority deadlines. Below, we've got you covered with some tips and advice for each section of the application. And if you've already submitted, then you're all set for now, but remember the FAFSA must be filled out for each academic year!

Before Getting Started

To help make filling out the FAFSA as simple as possible, it's a good idea to collect everything you'll need before getting started. Here's a list of what to have on hand:

  • FSA ID – This is a username and password that gives you access to the FAFSA. You'll use it to sign your name electronically, so whoever signs the FAFSA will need an FSA ID. You can create or manage your FSA ID here. When parent information is required, both the student and parent will need an FSA ID.
  • Social Security Number or Alien Registration Number (if you are not a US citizen)
  • Federal income tax returns, W-2s and other records of income or money earned
  • Bank statements and records of investments or untaxed income (if applicable) - The FAFSA will ask for current balances in these accounts.

To begin, log in at FAFSA.gov with your student FSA ID. Make sure you're applying for aid for the academic year the student will enter college, which spans from fall to summer.

Student Demographics

The first section covers basic information for the student, such as name, SSN, age and address. The state entered in your address will be the one included in the following question concerning residency. State residency affects the price you pay at public, state institutions.

You'll also fill out high school and college education here. If you’re a high school senior, select 'Never attended college/1st year', even if you took college credit courses in high school. Current college students will pick status based on credits earned towards a degree, not necessarily how many years they've attended college.

School Selection

Next, you'll select the schools you want to receive your FAFSA information. The schools will then use your application to calculate and compile all the institutional and federal financial aid you qualify for to create your financial aid package. You must choose at least one school and can select up to 10 schools.

Additionally, for each school you'll need to select whether you plan to live on campus, off campus or with family. This helps them correctly calculate how much it will cost to attend.

Dependency Status

The questions in this section help the FAFSA classify the student as dependent or independent. The difference determines whether the government expects parents to contribute money towards college education, where it is expected for a dependent student, but not for an independent student. Therefore, dependent students must provide their parents' financial information, while independent students do not. If you qualify as dependent, only one parent is required to complete the FAFSA.

Note that dependency status on a tax return is different than dependency in terms of the FAFSA. At the end of this section, the FAFSA will display how you classify.

Parent Demographics

Here, the FAFSA will gather information on your parents to get a better understanding of your family's ability to pay for college. If you're considered dependent, you will need to fill out this section, but only one parent is required to do so. If a student's parents are divorced, then the parent with whom the student spends more than 50% of their time should be the one who completes the FAFSA.

The questions here are similar to the student demographics section, asking for name, SSNs, dates of birth and marital status. It will also ask about household size and number of children in college.

Financial Information

The final section does a deep dive into your family's income (money your family earns) and assets (money in places like checking or savings accounts) to better understand your ability to pay for college. The FAFSA now asks for financial information from two years prior, so there's no longer a need to wait on your taxes. You can also import your tax information directly from the IRS into the FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which makes this section a lot easier. The income and assets of both the parent and the student are considered when gauging eligibility for aid.

Look to the banner at the top of the screen to double check whether you are entering parent or student information. Remember, dependent students will report both student and parent information, whereas independent students typically only report student information.

Altogether, the main number calculated by the FAFSA is your expected family contribution, or EFC, which represents what the government expects a household to contribute towards college expenses each year.

Finally, be sure to go back though your application and check for mistakes before signing and submitting. Some common errors include:

  • Leaving Fields Blank – Too many blanks may cause miscalculations or even an application rejection. Try entering a '0' or 'not applicable' instead of leaving something blank.
  • Using Commas or Decimals in Numeric Fields – Always round to the nearest dollar.
  • Listing Incorrect Numbers – Double check all entries for accuracy.

You can get more details and step-by-step video tutorials for filling out the FAFSA from our FAFSA Help guide. There you'll also find FAFSA Chat, where you can get your FAFSA questions answered live. Plus, check out our recent podcast episode, focusing on the FAFSA and college admissions process. If you'd like to meet with our College Planner, Karly Scholl, you can schedule an appointment online.

Meet With Karly

CommunityAmerica is not affiliated or a provider of the FAFSA. For more details on eligibility requirements or to fill out the FAFSA, visit FAFSA.ed.gov.
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