Understanding FAFSA Terminology
Before you start the actual FAFSA process, it’s important to understand the key terms you will encounter.
- Dependent student: the FAFSA will ask you a series of questions to determine if you’re an independent student or a dependent student (i.e., you have the financial support of your parents). If you’re considered a dependent student, you’ll need to report your parent’s financial information.
- Household size: the number of people who you or your parents are financially responsible for—even if some of them are not living with you.
- Marital status: the FAFSA asks the marital status of your parents. Often, people answer this question incorrectly. If, for example, your parents are divorced and you live with your mother, who is remarried, you would still list her status as “married.” In this case, you would include both your mother’s and your stepfather’s income on your FAFSA. (View other common FAFSA errors)
Breaking Down the FAFSA
Understanding the FAFSA process may seem complicated, so let’s take it step-by-step:
1. Get a FSA ID so you can sign your FAFSA electronically. Go to the Federal Student Aid website and just enter your Social Security number and contact information.
2. Gather documentation.
- Your parents’ Social Security numbers (if you’re a dependent student)
- Your driver’s license number
- Your U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) registration number (if you’re not a US citizen)
- Your federal tax returns, including W-2 information for you and your spouse (if married) and parents (if you’re a dependent child)
- Information about untaxed income, such as child support received or interest income
- Records of your checking and savings accounts, as well as investments, such as stocks and bonds
4. List the schools you’re considering attending, along with each school’s Federal School Code.
Although you only have to include one school on the FAFSA, it’s a good idea to include all those that you’re considering. For many institutions, financial aid is given on a first-come, first-served basis.
5. Determine your dependency status, as described above.
6. Report your parent’s income if you’re a dependent student.
7. Complete the financial information questions.
8. Sign and submit the FAFSA with your FSA ID. You should receive an email confirmation that your form was successfully completed.
- Check with your state Department of Education to see if you need a separate state aid form. Some states require an additional application to determine if you’re eligible for state aid. If so, you may be able to transfer your FAFSA information directly to your state aid application, depending on where you live. Just click on the link in your FAFSA confirmation page to do so.
- Check with the schools you’re considering to see if they need additional forms. More than 300 colleges and universities require a CSS Financial Aid PROFILE form in addition to the FAFSA to be considered for financial aid.
- The FAFSA4caster is a free financial aid calculator that will give you an early estimate of your financial aid eligibility. The FAFSA4caster isn’t the actual application. It’s a way to help you start to plan ahead on how you’ll pay for college.
- If you’ve already filled out your federal income taxes, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer the data from the IRS to the FAFSA.