Updated: Apr 02, 2024

How to Fill Out FAFSA Application Correctly to Avoid Common Mistakes

Everything to know about financial aid including how to fill out your FAFSA with these important materials.
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FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student AID, is a free form students fill out detailing their financial situation in order to request monetary aid from the government for their higher tuition expenses.

Based on the information provided, the Office of Federal Student Aid and the U.S. Department of Education determine how much federal funding you are eligible to receive.

Examples of financial aid are:

  • The Pell Grant
  • The Perkins Loan
  • The Stafford Loan
  • Work-Study opportunities
  • State and school student assistance programs

According to the Federal Student Aid Office, there is over $1.4 billion dollars in federal student loan debt alone (private student loans not included). 

To give you a better idea about the distribution of loans by FAFSA, here's a statistical overview of the age demographic of borrowers with federal loan debt in 2018:

Federal Student Loan Portfolio by Age and Debt Size

Debt Size 24 or younger 25 to 34 35 to 49 50 to 61
Less than $5,000 $4,320,000,000 $6,780,000,000 $5,610,000,000 $2,630,000,000
$5,000 to $10,000 $15,190,000,000 $17,470,000,000 $14,280,000,000 $6,760,000,000
$10,000 to $20,000 $31,430,000,000 $46,820,000,000 $37,180,000,000 $15,630,000,000
$20,000 to $40,000 $47,750,000,000 $99,420,000,000 $80,190,000,000 $30,220,000,000
$40,000 to $60,000 $10,840,000,000 $74,140,000,000 $77,020,000,000 $27,310,000,000
$60,000 to $80,000 $4,160,000,000 $56,070,000,000 $72,830,000,000 $25,530,000,000

Read on to learn the best tips to fill out the FAFSA in order to ensure an accurate application.

First Things First, Are You Eligible?

If you are in need of additional funding for college, the best way to get it is by applying for FAFSA. However, not everyone is eligible to apply and receive financial aid.

Here are the eligibility requirements to receive financial aid:

  • Be a citizen or eligible noncitizen of the United States.
    Have a valid Social Security Number.
  • Have a high school diploma or a General Education Development (GED) certificate, or have completed homeschooling. If you don’t, you may still be eligible for federal student aid if you were enrolled in college or career school prior to June 30, 2021 (check out this site for additional info.)
  • Be enrolled in an eligible program as a regular student seeking a degree or certificate.
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress.
  • Not owe a refund on a federal student grant or be in default on a federal student loan.
  • Register (or already be registered) with the Selective Service System, if you are a male and not currently on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces. 
  • Not have a conviction for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid (such as grants, work-study, or loans). 

Although these are the general requirements to be eligible to receive financial aid, this list is not exhaustive. Contact the financial aid office of your college to see if additional requirements apply.

Create Your Unique PIN

The process begins by creating your PIN, otherwise known as your FSA ID, which serves as your electronic signature and gives you access to your personal records and information.

Your PIN is very important, as the official FAFSA site advises students not to give their PIN away to anyone since this PIN is what will be used each year you apply for financial aid.

Other items you'll want to have with you when you are filling out the form include:

  • Income tax return or well-estimated tax information
  • W-2 forms and other records of income earned
  • Records of income, such as unemployment benefits
  • Recent bank statements
  • Business and farm records
  • Investments records
  • Driver's license
  • Social security cards
  • Dates of birth

If you are unable to fill out your FAFSA with these important materials, we will be detailing how to proceed in special circumstances throughout this guide.

Generally, every student is encouraged to apply for financial aid annually, because changing financial and family circumstances can affect whether a student is eligible for aid. For example, students who didn't qualify for student aid one year, but became eligible the following year because of a sister enrolling in college.

Additionally, certain private colleges require other supplemental forms as well as the FAFSA to obtain information for their own grants, scholarships, and loans not determined by the FAFSA.

Students can click the CSS Profile form if they are asked to do so by their potential universities, and other information on other necessary forms can be obtained through the colleges.

The rules regarding the CSS Profile are more flexible, such as the liquidity to submit the profile in the fall, whereas FAFSA cannot be submitted prior to January 1.

FAFSA deadlines are important -- applications cannot be submitted before January 1st, and ideally they will be submitted by February 15, because according to most state deadlines, the form should be submitted no later than March 1.

The form should be filled out as soon as you can after October 1, to ensure you do not miss out on available aid.

You can find your state's deadline here.

Common Errors and Special Circumstances

Though students are able to correct their FAFSAs, this delays processing, as two to three extra weeks are tacked on due to the erroneous initial form.

Many simple mistakes can be avoided by carefully reading the instructions and questions, and the Federal Student Aid information Center is one resource that can help troubleshoot questions and difficulties.

To give an idea of the most common mistakes, here are a few:

  • Answers to questions focusing on Adjusted Gross Income, total income tax, Social Security number, marital status, and worksheets
  • Leaving an answer blank as opposed to writing in a “0”
  • Income earned from work

Many websites providing information on financial aid empathize with the student whose parents don't help with FAFSAs, and support legal reforms and changes that shift the focus of the form from parents to students.

However, there are not many options for students who face requesting aid without help from their caregivers.

The current federal aid system is structured around the family unit as the main provider for higher education costs.

The program provides assistance to whatever extent the student has shown their family fiscally unable to cover all their expenses.

However, students whose parents choose not to help or provide the necessary information have no tangible help from the government.

Though the resources are not ample, the government has provided a page of information and options for students who are in special circumstances.

The Higher Education Act allows certain dependency overrides on a case-by-case basis, which allows students to submit their FAFSA without parental information.

However, that student’s EFC (expected family contribution) cannot be calculated until an administrator approves the circumstances and follows through with a dependency override.

Students who are homeless or in dire financial situations can receive extra help in receiving an override, but again, it's on a case-by-case basis, however, it is recommended that their status be verified by one of two organizations, which can be found here.

Unfortunately, students whose family refuses support are ineligible for a dependency override, making it almost impossible to fill out FAFSA without parents.

However, these students can receive aid in the form of unsubsidized Stafford loans only.

Additionally, in order to apply for a PIN, the student or parent must have a valid Social Security number, or will not be able to obtain a PIN.

Filling Out FAFSA Correctly

There are many tools that can help students and parents fill out the FAFSA.

The FAFSA site now also contains a simple and well-articulated guide detailing "7 Easy Steps to the FAFSA" which uses a video and narrator to guide you through each part of the process.

The steps include:

  • Student demographics
  • School Selection
  • Dependency Status
  • Parent Demographics
  • Financial Information
  • Sign and Submit
  • Confirmation

Additionally, a student viewing the site can click the chat feature on FAFSA's site to speak with a live FAFSA representative.

There are even financial aid calculators which can give you an estimate for what kind of aid the government will give you.

The FAFSA site encourages students to fill out their form electronically, rather than manually (due to mistakes), however, paper forms are available as well as PDF documents in English and Spanish.

The electronic form also allows students to enter up to 10 different colleges to receive aid from.

FAFSA Acronym Cheat Sheet

Acronym Meaning
FAFSA Free Application for Federal Student Aid
FSA ID Federal Student Aid ID - Allows students and parents to identify themselves electronically to access FSA Web sites, and is made up of a username and password and can be used to log into FAFSA on the Web.
COA Cost of Attendance - Total amount it will cost you to go to college each year.
EFC Expected Family Contribution - Measure of your family’s financial strength and is calculated according to a formula established by law; determines how much aid you are eligible for.
SAR Student Aid Report - Paper or electronic document that gives you some basic information about your eligibility for federal student aid and lists your answers to the questions on your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Forms 1040, 1040A, and 1040EZ The three most commonly used individual tax forms that are required to fill out your FAFSA.

What to expect after filling out your FAFSA

If you submitted your FAFSA online, then the U.S. Department of Education will process your application within 3 to 5 days. 

Your financial aid package will include a financial aid award letter from each of the colleges you listed.

Two to three weeks after submitting the FAFSA online, a Student Aid Report (SAR) will be sent to you, which paraphrases the information provided on your FAFSA and gives a summary of your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

This number is the amount of money the government expects your family will contribute to your education costs.

To assure you are filling out FAFSA correctly, you will get the opportunity to review these details and make corrections.

The financial formula works as follows -- the lower your EFC is, the more aid you will get.

Essentially, the EFC is subtracted from the school’s COA (cost of attendance including books, supplies, travel, tuition, fees, room and board, etc.).

If your EFC is tiny, you will get more financial aid.

Essentially, the smaller your EFC is, the more financial help the government will give.

There are many tips on maximizing your eligibility for aid, as well as tips on how to reduce your EFC.

In early to mid-April you will receive your financial aid award package, which will contain every detail of your financial awards based on your FAFSA, with official financial aid award letters from each school applied to, as well as from the federal government.

Following that, you will be responsible for accepting or rejecting all or part of the financial aid package you choose, and completing other needed forms required by the school.

Each year you will need to complete the FAFSA in order to continue requesting aid.