FAFSA Applications Are Open. Here’s How To Fill It Out This Year

Welcome to FAFSA season.

The Free Application For Federal Student Aid opened on Oct. 1 — and if you’re planning on going to college next year, or even just toying with the idea of taking classes, you should fill it out.

Yes, it’s a government form, but it’s free, and it’s the first step in getting financial aid that could be the key to going to college. COVID-19 makes everything more tricky, and filling out the FAFSA is no exception — but even if your family has lost a lot of income during the pandemic, there’s still hope. Colleges want you to come to their schools, and this form could be the first step in getting there.

Here’s how to fill out the FAFSA and why you shouldn’t wait to do it.

How It Works

The FAFSA will prompt you to list up to 10 schools that you’re interested in attending, and the federal government will send your information to these schools. You’ll hear back directly from them — not from the government — about how much financial aid you’ll get. This will include grants, scholarships (which you don’t have to pay back!) and loans.

Lots of schools determine financial aid on a rolling basis, so you could hear back in a few weeks — and some more selective schools won’t let students know their financial aid package until their admission results come back in the spring.

Where To Start

Before you start the FAFSA, you’ll need to make a Federal Student Aid ID — a username and password that serve as your online signature when you’re filling out aid forms through the federal government. Create an FSA ID here.

You’ll need to be prepared with a few things as you sit down to start the application. Have your social security number (or permanent resident card) handy.

It’s also helpful to have the 2019 federal tax returns for you and your parents. The FAFSA starts by asking demographic questions about you, your family and your high school — and then moves on to financial questions to get a sense of how much money you might need to pay for college. It relies on last year’s tax data for much of this information. The form automatically pulls that information from the IRS, but it’s helpful if you can have the taxes accessible while you’re filling it out just in case.

“It seems intimidating, but it’s really not that bad,” says Dominique Gunn, a college advisor in Columbus, Ohio. “All we’re doing is plugging and chugging. Just plugging in information and moving on to the next page.”

Got it all? Now go to this website to fill out the FAFSA.

Deadlines To Remember

The FAFSA opened up on Oct. 1, and it will close on June 30, 2021. That’s a big window to apply for financial aid — but if you already know you’re thinking about college next fall, you should go ahead and fill out the application now. “Many states and a lot of institutional funds are first come, first serve,” says Sara Urquidez, who runs a non-profit that guides students in Dallas and Houston through the college process. “[The] earlier you get in line, the more money you could potentially receive from a particular institution.”

Applying earlier could make a big difference in the funds that you get — and you’ll want to know how much financial aid you’ll receive before you make a decision about where to go.

What If My Financial Situation Has Changed Since My 2019 Taxes?

The FAFSA always relies on the taxes from the previous year — that’s just how the federal form works. This year, that gives an unrealistic picture of lots of families’ finances, because so many people have lost jobs and income due to COVID-19. If you’re in this situation, you’re not alone and colleges know that.

Fill out the FAFSA — but then reach out to the colleges you’re considering. “Let them know, ‘Hey, something’s happened. Our finances are just a little bit different now. What can we do to let you know so you can take a second look?‘” recommends Karla Weber, who works in the financial aid office at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Colleges know these calls are coming and are ready to adjust financial aid offers.

Where To Go For Help

If you’ve got questions while you’re filling out the form, you can save it and come back to it later. Reach out to your guidance counselor or even your teachers for help. They’re the people who know you best.

Financial aid offices at the colleges you’re interested in attending can also help you. “The financial aid office is your friend in this process. I think sometimes we get made out to be the ones that are hiding or hoarding this money from students, where it’s really just the opposite,” says Karla Weber at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It’s their job to get you the money you need.

Once Those Results Come In

Your offer letters from individual schools will spell out the financial aid you receive — but you don’t have to take it. You can always turn the funds down if you choose a different school, or if one school simply isn’t offering you enough money to attend.

If you need more aid to attend the school you’re most interested in, you should reach out to the financial aid office and let them know. Nothing is final in this process, and they may be able to provide more money for you — or even suggest scholarships you can apply for to make it work. You’ll never get that extra cash unless you ask.

The podcast and digital versions of this story were produced by Clare Lombardo.

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