While the cost of college can make many hesitate, getting your degree is an investment in your future. Financial aid is an option for many students, even mature students, and can help you afford your education. 

While the process can seem daunting, this guide can help you understand the financial aid application process.

Your first step in applying for financial aid is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA). This is used to determine if you are eligible for any federal grants or loans, and many schools, states, and scholarship programs also use it to assess whether you should receive any aid through them.

You need to complete this form every year, not just once, as your financial circumstances may change. You can submit the form any time after October 1.

The deadline for federal student aid is June 30. But most states and colleges set their own deadlines, so be sure to double-check. Since many pots of money are limited, the sooner you can get your application in, the better. 

Before you start completing the form, we highly recommend creating an FSA ID. This is essentially an account, with a username and password, which means you can access information online, sign loan contracts, and match your social security number to your application. 

If you are a dependent student, one of your parents will also need to create an FSA ID to fill out their portion of the form.

Documents that You Need to Apply

Before you complete the FAFSA form, make sure you have the relevant documents to hand. You’ll need to provide proof of identity and outline your financial situation.  

  •       Social security number
  •       Driver’s license number (if relevant)
  •       Alien registration number (non-U.S. citizens only)
  •       Federal tax returns or tax returns including IRS W-2 information. If you are married, you’ll also need your spouse’s tax returns. Or your parent’s, if you are a dependent student.
  •       Records of any untaxed income
  •       Information on cash, savings, bank balances, and other assets, including investments, business assets, or farm assets

Students can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool in order to transfer your federal tax return information directly into your FAFSA form. This will ensure accuracy with your information, save you time, and limit your chances of being selected for verification. 

If you’re selected for verification, you’ll need to provide additional documents to back up the information you’ve put on your FAFSA form. More information on verification can be found on the studentaid.gov website.

Completing the Form

You don’t need to complete the entire form in one sitting – you can set a ‘save key’ that allows you to access the form again with the information you have filled in so far.

You can apply online at studentaid.gov, use the myStudentAid mobile app, complete a PDF to return by mail, or request a form over the phone.

The myStudentAid mobile app launched in 2018, and the latest updates allow you to complete the form directly in the app. It also provides a summary of your aid, notifies you of any upcoming loan payments, and provides checklists to help you stay on top of your financial aid. 

The form starts by taking your personal information and asks questions to determine if you are a dependent or independent student. The financial information you need to provide will vary on which category you fall into. If you are a dependent student, your parent will need to give details of their financial situation, which will affect the aid you can access.

You can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically transfer your tax information into the form. You’ll need to provide some information on the IRS website so you can import your tax details. It is a good idea to use this option if it is available – not only will it save you time, it prevents errors in reporting your tax.

If you are already a student and are renewing your financial aid application, doing so online will prefill a lot of the form for you. 

On your first application, you’ll be asked to list the schools you want to share your FAFSA form with. You can list up to ten. The schools won’t know which other ones you put on the list.

Once Your Form is Submitted

Your form will normally be shared with the schools on your list within five days. If you are applying for scholarships or school aid, you might need to complete additional forms, so make sure you check the requirements for each type of aid.

Once you are accepted by a college, they will send you an award letter detailing the financial aid you can claim. Each school has a different timetable for when they send award letters. But they typically arrive between December and April.

You can then compare what each school has offered you to decide which are financially viable. Some schools offer more aid than others, and students have the choice to accept full or partial awards depending on their needs.

If you are offered any loans or a work-study award, you need to accept these before you can receive the money.

Conclusion

Applying for financial aid can feel like a daunting process, but it is worth taking the time to understand the process and the types of aid you may be eligible for.

Financial aid can make a real difference to the affordability of studying for a degree. If you are on the fence about applying because of finances, we hope this article has helped to put some of your fears at rest. 

Student aid is available to students of all ages and degree levels, so don’t hesitate to apply.