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The FAFSA Cheat Sheet You Didn’t Know You Needed

Taking out student loans is a big commitment—and filling out the paperwork is no cakewalk, either. You’ll need you and your parents’ tax documentation, income statements, and, of course, the ability to actually understand all that IRS gibberish… which is challenging even for those who already have a college education.

So we put together this FAFSA® “cheat sheet” to help you get filed and funded in a snap. (Sorry, though; we won’t be able to give you an equivalently easy fix when it comes to actually completing your college assignments.)

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and for most students, it’s the first place to turn when you’ve determined you will need financial help paying for college.

The FAFSA is the first step to qualifying for a variety of types of federal student aid, including grants, subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and work-study programs. It’s also used by certain states and colleges in order to qualify you for separate sources of funding and scholarships.

And thanks to our 2019 all-digital-everything existence, you can fill out the FAFSA from the comfort of your laptop—or even your smartphone. Of course, you can also print out a paper form and send it to the following address:

Federal Student Aid Programs
P.O. Box 7650, London, KY 40742-7650
For help, or to check the status of your FAFSA, you can also call 1-800-433-3243.

Important Terms

As some of your college instructors will surely tell you, it’s hard to make any headway on a project until you understand its basic parts. So before you dive head-first into the FAFSA, here are some terms you’ll want to get familiar with.


If you choose to fill out the FAFSA online, you’ll be prompted to create an FSA ID. This is the username and password you use to log into certain U.S. Department of Education websites, including the FAFSA website, as well as to electronically sign the form when you’re finished.

If your parents claim you as a dependent, they’ll also need an FSA ID to sign the electronic application.


A dependent is a person who relies on someone else, like a parent or legal guardian, to provide for them monetarily. Those taking care of dependents can “claim” a dependent on their tax return, which can earn them a tax exemption.

Children under the age of 19 and full-time students under the age of 24 qualify as dependents, so if you’re heading to college immediately after high school, chances are good you do, too. If so, your parents will need to be involved in filling out your FAFSA, as their financial information is also used to help qualify you for aid.

IRS 1040 (Tax Return)

This is the form used to report earnings and calculate how much is owed in taxes on an annual basis. Both you and your parents will need to use your most recent tax returns in order to fill out the FAFSA.

W-2 (Wage and Tax Statement)

The W-2 is another IRS form, which employers file for each of their employees. Your W-2 will show you your total income, as well as Social Security and tax withholdings, from a given job.

You and your parents will use your W-2s to report your income on the FAFSA. You may also need bank statements, records of investments, and records of any untaxed income you or your parents may have earned, as well.

Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

The EFC is a figure calculated using the information on your FAFSA that helps colleges figure out how much aid you’re eligible to receive. It factors in your family’s taxed and untaxed income, as well as assets, benefits, family size and more.

Your EFC will be listed on your Student Aid Report, or SAR, which is the document you’ll receive after your FAFSA is processed. Although the EFC is an amount that the calculation determines your family should be able to afford, you are not required to pay the EFC out of pocket if you choose not to.

Direct Subsidized Loans

Direct Subsidized Loans are student loans from the federal government that are distributed based on demonstrated financial need.

They typically carry better rates and terms than most other student loans (including Direct Unsubsidized Loans), including the notable feature of having their interest paid by the U.S. Department of Education while you’re enrolled in school at least part-time, during a six-month grace period after leaving school, and during deferment periods.

Direct Unsubsidized Loans

Direct Unsubsidized Loans are student loans from the federal government that are available regardless of financial need. However, unlike subsidized loans, the borrower is responsible for paying interest on an unsubsidized loan throughout the loan’s lifetime—including while you’re in school.


Grants are forms of financial aid that don’t require repayment. They are offered by the federal government as well as state governments, individual schools, and third-party organizations, and are typically awarded based on financial need.


Federal work-study programs provide students with part-time jobs that can help them earn the money they need to get through school. In many cases, these jobs are related to the student’s course of study and may include on-campus jobs or community service work.

Filling Out the FAFSA

Now that you’ve got a word bank, let’s get down to brass tacks: actually filling this sucker out. As mentioned above, you can either fill out the FAFSA online or print and mail a paper application.

Although the information you’ll be providing is the same, there are some important differences to understand about the process.

Filling Out the FAFSA Online

Many students and their parents will find filing the FAFSA online more convenient. You can do so through the browser version of the Federal Student Aid website or on the myStudentAid app, which is available in both the Apple App Store and on Google Play for Android users.

In either case, the online program will walk you and your parents through the application, step by step, prompting you to refer to the documents mentioned above when you need to.
When filing online, you’ll log in and sign the documents using your FSA ID. If you don’t wish to complete the application in one sitting, you’ll be able to save your work and complete it later.

You can add up to 10 schools when you file your FAFSA online. If you change your mind about the number of schools you’re applying to, you can always add more later.

However, keep in mind that some states require you to add your schools in a specific order so as to be considered for state aid. (You can see the various state requirements at the official Federal Student Aid Program website here .)

Filling Out a Paper FAFSA

If you choose to fill out a paper FAFSA, you’ll need to be comfortable referring to the documents above—though the relevant questions do point you to the information you need fairly specifically.

Prompts include form identification numbers as well as the specific lines where you’ll find the right figures from the various tax and income documents you may have. For example, when asked to provide you or your parents’ adjusted gross income, the application specifies that you’ll find the information on IRS Form 1040—line 7.

On the paper FAFSA, you’ll have room to add up to four colleges, but you can add more online after your application has been processed on FAFSA.gov. Or, if you prefer, you can call a customer service representative at 1-800-433-3243, who can help you add the appropriate school codes to your existing application.

No matter which way you fill out the FAFSA, you’ll be asked to provide your Social Security number or Alien Registration Number (or A-Number), as well as personal information such as your date of birth, sex, marital status, and information about federal benefits you may have recieved. For dependent students, parents or guardians will also need to supply this information.

When is the FAFSA Due?

The deadline to file your FAFSA depends on your state of residency and the specific colleges you’re applying for. Certain states and institutions have specific due dates by which you’ll need to file in order to qualify for additional scholarships and aid.

However, for the 2020 – 2021 school year, all FAFSAs must be filed by no later than June 30, 2021. We suggest you check with your high school counselor and/or a financial aid officer at your college or university to ensure you meet all the necessary deadlines and complete all the required forms.

Need More Help Paying for College?

If you’ve filled out your FAFSA, received your SAR, and still aren’t sure how you’re going to foot the bill for your college education, SoFi’s private student loans may be an option worth considering.

We offer flexible repayment terms and don’t burden our borrowers with extra fees—and checking your rate won’t affect your credit score.

Want to learn whether SoFi’s private student loans could help you fund your education? Check your rates today.

Learn More

SoFi Private Student Loans
Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See SoFi.com/eligibility for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.

Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.
External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
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Third Party Brand Mentions: No brands or products mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

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