What is FAFSA?

When it comes to financial aid for college, it’s important to start planning and applying early. High school students can (and should) start the process as early as the summer before their senior year.

First step, become familiar with the word FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that can be filled out annually by both current and future college students to determine how much financial assistance they qualify for.

Financial aid can come in many forms, including grants, education loans, work-study, and scholarships. These funds can be used to cover tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and even transportation.

Here’s what you need to know:

How do I get started with financial aid?

Creating a username and password called an FSA ID is the first step to applying for FAFSA and can be done as early as the summer prior to your child's senior year of high school. This ID is what students use to access the FSA online system and can also be used as a legal signature when signing forms electronically. To do this, go to FAFSA.gov.

Remember to apply early in order to maximize the amount of financial aid recieved. Federal financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, and FAFSA forms can be submitted starting October 1 of your child’s senior year of high school. College and state financial aid deadlines can vary by state, so be sure to know your state’s deadlines.

What information will I need to provide?

When filling out FAFSA forms, you’ll be asked to provide personal, demographic, and financial information. Here is a list of info you can gather in preparation:

  • Driver’s license and Social Security number
  • Your family’s latest federal income tax returns
  • W-2 forms (both parents’ and student’s)
  • Bank statements
  • Any information on your family’s investments (including any 529 plans in place)

When you apply online, you'll be given the option to electronically retrieve your IRS data to auto populate the FAFSA form. This option can often simplify the process and help to avoid errors.

The information you provide is then used to determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC index number is used by colleges to determine how much federal financial aid you’re eligible to receive.

Be sure to avoid these common mistakes when filling out your FAFSA forms:

  • Leaving blank fields can cause an application to be rejected. Instead opt for filling in sections with a “0” or “not applicable.”
  • Giving the wrong information. Check important numbers like your Social Security number and driver's license number twice to avoid errors.
  • Using commas or decimal points when filling out numeric fields. Instead round to the nearest dollar to be sure numbers are easily understood.

What other financial aid is available?

Scholarships are a great supplement to financial aid, and applications can be submitted as early as the summer prior to a student’s senior year of high school. Use free scholarship search tools like StudentAid.gov/scholarships to find and apply for the ones that match your child's interest and skills. A few tips are:

  • Consider your child's hobbies as a form of paying for college. There are scholarships for all types of students, including vegetarians, clowns, cartoonists, and even duck-calling experts. Whatever their hobby is, there is most likely a scholarship for it.
  • Ask a high school counselor for advice. Academic advisors should have information about scholarships that would be a good fit for your child, so take advantage of their services.
  • Research scholarships for minority students. If your child is part of a minority, there may be specific scholarships available to them. Look into your options and what information you need to apply.

Additional student financing options

If financial aid and scholarships don’t cover all your college expenses, you may want to look into your lending options. Be sure to know all the facts about student loans before you take this route.

Regardless of how you decide to pay for college, start preparing your grad to be financially independent today. Have them download the MoneyLion app to use our free tools, like the spending tracker, credit monitoring, and daily financial tips. To get them started down the road to success, here are 10 things every grad needs to know about money.