Finding Your Way Around the FAFSA

federal aid

What is FAFSA, how do I complete it and how does the government use it?

What is it?Do elaborate financial forms make you cross-eyed? Does the thought of tackling the FAFSA make you cringe? Never fear, prospective grad students. We’ve got the lowdown on this daunting application: what it is, how to complete it and how the government uses it.

The FAFSA – or Free Application for Federal Student Aid – is simply a tool for determining your eligibility for financial aid. The grants and loans it screens for include well-known federal awards such as Pell Grants, Federal Student Aid, and Federal Work Study, but it also encompasses hundreds of state aid programs. So it’s actually pretty convenient – one form that offers many functions.

How do I complete it?

The U.S. Department of Education begins accepting FAFSA applications beginning January 1 of each year for the upcoming academic year. Since aid is provided on a first-come, first-served basis, it’s crucial to apply as early as possible. This is not the time to procrastinate, because it may mean the difference between being able to afford school and having to put it off.

Before you get down to business, you’ll need several pieces of information at the ready. These include your social security card and driver’s license (or alien registration card), W-2 forms and records of any other untaxed income, last year’s tax return, and current bank statements and investment records.

Once you’ve collected all of your paperwork, you can choose from three different ways to complete the FAFSA. You can fill it out online or print it as a PDF. You can also have a hard copy sent to you by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID.

How does the government use it?

Once the U.S. Department of Education receives your FAFSA, it does four things. First, it applies a financial aid eligibility calculation to the financial information you’ve provided. FYI, as a graduate student, you’re determined to be “independent”, meaning that the Department of Education will not take into account your family’s finances – only yours. Second, it checks with other government agencies to ensure that you do, in fact, qualify for aid. It then sends you a Student Aid Report (SAR) which allows you to review the information provided on the application and make any needed corrections to the information. Finally, it forwards a record of the application to the schools of your choice. The schools will then send you a financial aid award letter. Once you've accepted the award letter, you can begin the process of applying for specific loans.

See? It’s not so bad, and it’s actually a quicker process than you may have anticipated. But let us take this opportunity to remind you not to put it off. When it comes to an important life decision such as graduate school, it’s essential to have your finances in order as soon as possible.

By Stephanie Small
Find Schools