The first step to applying for federal financial aid (grants, need-based scholarships, federal student loans, and work-study jobs) is filling out your FAFSA®. Some states and schools also require it for their grants, merit-based scholarships, and loans. We’re here to help make the application process easier with FAQs, step-by-step instructions, explainers, and more.
Let’s start with the basics: FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and must be submitted every year a student hopes to receive federal financial aid. Many states and schools also require FAFSA information for their funding and scholarships.
The form is available online at Studentaid.gov/h/apply-for-aid/fafsa . You can also print out the application and mail it in. The form asks questions about the income and finances of the student (and spouse if married) and the student’s parents, plus questions about the student’s education plans. According to StudentAid.gov, it takes most people less than an hour to fill out the FAFSA form.
For the upcoming academic year, you can submit the form as early as Oct. 1. Generally, the federal deadline is June 30 (before the academic year starts), but states and schools may have earlier deadlines. Also, keep in mind that funding is limited and often given out on a first-come, first-served basis.
Here are some articles that go into more depth covering FAFSA basics:
Whether you’re starting college or going back for another degree, keeping the different loan types straight in your head is not easy. First, there are federal student loans (which include loans to parents) and private student loans (which are available to parents and students through a private lender and don’t require completing the FAFSA — more about that below).
Federal loans have amount limits and eligibility requirements, including financial need for certain loans. Private loans generally require a credit check, proof of income, and/or a cosigner.
Here’s a guide to the different types of federal student loans available.
Direct Subsidized Loans are for undergraduate students who have financial need. The “subsidized” part means the government pays your interest while you’re in school and for a six-month grace period after graduation.
Direct Unsubsidized Loans are offered to undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree-seeking students, and financial need is not required.
Direct PLUS Loans are offered to parents paying for their dependent child’s undergraduate education, and to graduate or professional degree-seeking students.
An additional source for education funding are private lenders, including banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Private student loans do not require a FAFSA application and are often used as a supplement to federal aid.
It can sometimes be difficult to determine which loan option will work best for you. These comparison articles may help you choose from federal, private, or both.
Below, we outline the basic requirements (set by law) to receive federal student loans and other federal aid. For a deeper dive, check out our student loan requirements article.
To qualify for many federal student aid programs, you must demonstrate that you have a financial need. Your financial need is determined by calculating the difference between the cost of attending a school (COA) and your expected family contribution (EFC). Your COA will vary, of course, depending on the school, but your EFC will remain the same. A completed FAFSA is required to determine a student’s EFC.
You must be either a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen to apply for federal aid. Eligible non-citizens include U.S. nationals, U.S. permanent residents, or individuals with certain designations from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services.
It is required that applicants possess a valid Social Security number. There are exceptions for students from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau.
Previously, most male students wishing to apply for federal student aid had to be registered with Selective Service. But with the passage of the FAFSA Simplification Act in late 2020 , this is no longer the case (having a drug-related conviction also no longer affects eligibility). That said, the FAFSA form for 2022-2023 may still have a question asking if males under age 26 want to register with the Selective Service.
To receive federal aid, students must either be enrolled, or accepted for enrollment, in an eligible degree or certificate program. You must be enrolled as a “regular student,” meaning you have been accepted at the institution in order to obtain a degree, certificate, or other recognized education credential. Students must also be enrolled at least half-time to be eligible for Direct Loan Program funds.
Part of the FAFSA includes signing a certification statement. This states that you do not have any federal student loans in default and you do not owe money on a federal grant. Signing this statement certifies that you will use any federal student aid you receive for educational purposes only.
Students must prove that they are qualified to obtain a college education by showing they have a high school diploma, General Education Development (GED) certificate, completed high school education by a homeschool approved under state law, or are enrolled in an eligible career pathway program. Career pathway programs require that you also meet an “ability-to-benefit” alternative that you can learn more about here.
In addition to loans, student aid can also come in the form of grants, scholarships, and work-study jobs.
Now that you know the basics, let’s go through some important deadlines for the student aid process.
This is the date the FAFSA becomes available for the following school year. It is recommended that you fill out your FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1 to give you a chance to access all available funds. Need-based aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so it is in your best interest to apply before some funds run out.
This is the deadline to submit the FAFSA for the school year beginning that fall. You can still make corrections and updates until early September. For the 2023-2024 school year, the deadline is Sept. 14, 2024.
Each state has its own deadline for submitting the FAFSA form, and some state-specific grants have their own deadlines for submission as well. To find the deadline for your state, check the official FAFSA website.
In addition to state deadlines, colleges may also have other deadlines that vary by school. Check with the schools that you are interested in attending to ensure you submit your FAFSA on time.
Once you have a student loan, how do you go about paying it back?
When it comes to financial aid, there are a lot of topics to cover. Here are some additional resources that can make the process easier.
Sometimes the cost of college can exceed the amount of federal aid you receive. That’s when you might consider a private student loan with SoFi. SoFi offers no-fee student loans with an easy application that can be done entirely online.
SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are looking to refinance federal student loans, please be aware that the White House has announced up to $20,000 of student loan forgiveness for Pell Grant recipients and $10,000 for qualifying borrowers whose student loans are federally held. Additionally, the federal student loan payment pause and interest holiday has been extended beyond December 31, 2022. Please carefully consider these changes before refinancing federally held loans with SoFi, since the amount or portion of your federal student debt that you refinance will no longer qualify for the federal loan payment suspension, interest waiver, or any other current or future benefits applicable to federal loans. If you qualify for federal student loan forgiveness and still wish to refinance, leave unrefinanced the amount you expect to be forgiven to receive your federal benefit.
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Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income-Driven Repayment plans, including Income-Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.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. Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances. SoFi Loan Products