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What to Do Before You File the FAFSA

The student and parent should each obtain an FSA ID before filing the FAFSA, so they can sign the online FAFSA electronically. Parental information is not required for students who are considered to be independent students.

File your federal income tax returns at least three weeks before filing the FAFSA (eight weeks if filing tax returns on paper) to enable use of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool transfers income and tax information from your federal income tax returns into the FAFSA.

Gather other documents you will need to file the FAFSA, such as your Social Security Card, W-2s and 1099s, and bank and brokerage account statements.

How Do You File the FAFSA?

There are three ways to file the FAFSA:

More than 99% of applicants file the FAFSA online using the FAFSA web site.

There may be two versions of the FAFSA available, one for the current academic year and one for the upcoming academic year. Make sure you file the FAFSA for the right year. 

There are eight steps to the FAFSA:

  1. Student Demographic Questions
  2. School Selection
  3. Dependency Status
  4. Parent Demographic Questions
  5. Parent Financial Information
  6. Student Financial Information
  7. Sign and Submit
  8. Confirmation

Print or save a copy of the confirmation page, as it provides proof of the date and time you submitted the FAFSA.

A few days to a few weeks after you file the FAFSA, you will receive a student aid report (SAR) that includes your expected family contribution (EFC). Review the SAR and correct any errors.

The EFC is used to calculate your financial need, which affects the amount of financial aid you will receive. The EFC is not the same as the amount you will pay or borrow for college, which is the net price.

Your FAFSA may be selected for verification, especially if you did not use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Respond to the verification requests promptly, as procrastination can lead to delays in the receipt of financial aid. 

The college financial aid office may send you a financial aid award letter that lists the types and amounts of financial aid you will receive. 

If your ability to pay for college is affected by special circumstances, such as changes in income since the prior-prior year or differences between your family’s financial situation and typical families, appeal for more financial aid.

For more information about the FAFSA, see our Complete Guide to Financial Aid and the FAFSA.

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Saving For College is an unbiased, independent resource for parents and financial professionals, providing them with information and tools to understand the benefits of 529 college savings plans and how to meet the challenge of increasing college costs.