What Is the FAFSA?

Learn about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid

Signs at a college reading, Financial Aid and Admissions
Learn about the FAFSA. Peter Glass / Getty Images

If you are a U.S. citizen and you want financial aid from a college or university in the United States, you'll need to fill out the FAFSA. About 400 colleges also require the CSS Profile, but nearly all will require a completed FAFSA before you will be rewarded aid.

FAFSA Fast Facts

  • FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
  • As a federal government program, the FAFSA is for U.S. citizens, U.S. national, or eligible non-citizens.
  • The FAFSA is available on October 1st the year before you will receive aid.
  • If you have all necessary documents at hand, the FAFSA takes about an hour to complete.

The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Anyone who wants financial aid for college will need to fill out the FAFSA. The application is used to determine the dollar amount you or your family will be expected to contribute towards college. All federal grant and loan awards are determined by the FAFSA, and nearly all colleges use the FAFSA as the basis for their own financial aid awards.

The FAFSA is managed by the Office of Federal Student Aid, part of the Department of Higher Education. In recent years, the Office of Federal Student Aid has processed roughly 18 million financial aid applications annually and disburses tens of billions of dollars in financial aid.

The FAFSA application should take about one hour to fill out, but this is only if you have all the necessary documents at hand before you begin. Some applicants get frustrated with the application process because they do not have ready access to all necessary tax forms and bank statements, so be sure to plan ahead before you sit down to complete your FAFSA. If you have dependent status for tax purposes, realize that you will need both your own and your parents' financial information.

The FAFSA requires information in five categories:

  • Information about the student
  • Information about the student’s dependency status
  • Information about the student’s parents
  • Information about the student’s finances
  • A list of the schools that should receive the results of the FAFSA

The FAFSA is available as of October 1st the year before you hope to receive aid. For example, if you will be starting school in September of 2022, you can fill out the FAFSA in October of 2021.

Students can fill out the FAFSA online at the FAFSA website, or they can apply through the mail with a paper form. The Office of Federal Student Aid strongly recommends the online application because it conducts immediate error checking, and it tends to speed up the application process by a few weeks. Students applying online can save their work and return to an application at a later date.

Again, any financial aid award begins with the FAFSA, so be sure to complete the form before the deadlines for the schools to which you’ve applied. Realize that most state deadlines are much earlier than the June 30th federal deadline, and colleges may have their own deadlines for you to have the best chance of receiving institutional aid. Read more about the timing of your FAFSA application here: When Should You Submit the FAFSA?

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Grove, Allen. "What Is the FAFSA?" ThoughtCo, May. 30, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-fafsa-788493. Grove, Allen. (2021, May 30). What Is the FAFSA? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-fafsa-788493 Grove, Allen. "What Is the FAFSA?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-fafsa-788493 (accessed March 31, 2023).

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