Filling Out the FAFSA

If you hope to get financial aid to help pay for college, the first thing you'll need to do is fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form. Your FAFSA collects information about your income and that of your parents, if they are still supporting you (or claiming you as a dependent). Colleges and other institutions use this information to assess your ability to pay for school.

You can complete the FAFSA online. You will need to apply for a personal identification number to do so, but the FAFSA Web site makes getting a PIN easy.

Complete the FAFSA any time after January 1 of the year you are requesting financial aid. For example, if you plan to begin college in August 2010, you can fill out the FAFSA form as early as January 2, 2010. And while we're talking about important dates, you'll also want to get the financial aid deadlines for the college you're going to attend (or thinking about attending) and your state's department of higher education. Some colleges have a deadline as early as the end of January for the following fall semester. Regardless of your schools' deadlines, the sooner you fill out the FAFSA, the better; being early increases your chances of receiving various grants.

If at all possible, complete your income taxes (and have your parents complete theirs) for the previous year before you fill out the FAFSA. If this isn't possible, you'll need to estimate your income. Just make sure your estimation is accurate or very close: The government can compare your FAFSA application to your federal income tax returns (yours and your parents) whenever they do come in. Lying about your family's income won't get you more financial aid, and it could earn you a whole lot of troubles.

Besides your income tax return or estimated income statements, you will need the following to fill out your FAFSA:

  • Records on untaxed income (military combat pay, government assistance, Social Security, etc.)
  • Current bank statements
  • Dates of birth and social security numbers (for you and your parents)
  • The list of colleges you are thinking about attending
  • Any other information about your family income (self-employment records, farm records, inheritances, etc.)

Within a month or so after filling out your FAFSA, you should receive a Student Aid Report, which is what colleges will use to determine your level of financial aid. If you have questions pertaining to your Student Aid Report, you can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800-433-3243.