FAFSA 101: How to Complete the FAFSA

By Maureen Shelly · October 20, 2022 · 8 minute read

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FAFSA 101: How to Complete the FAFSA

Editor’s Note: Due to major changes coming to the FAFSA, the form for the 2024-2025 academic year is delayed until December 2023. This article reflects the most recent information, but final details will not be available until the new FAFSA form is released.

As you probably know, students need to submit a new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each school year. It’s the only way to learn what kinds of federal aid you qualify for, from student loans and grants to work-study programs. Plus, other student aid programs piggyback off the FAFSA, so it’s worth submitting even if you’re not expecting federal aid.

Keep reading to find detailed instructions for how to complete the latest FAFSA for the 2023-2024 school year. We’ll walk you through the required fields, and point out changes from last year’s form.

How To Fill Out the FAFSA

The FAFSA form is available every Oct. 1 for the next school year. For example, the form for the 2023-24 school year became available on Oct. 1, 2022. The Oct. 1 launch date coincides with many college application deadlines, so you can submit admission and federal aid applications at the same time.

Dependent or Independent Student?

Before sitting down to complete the application, you need to decide whether to apply as a dependent of your parents or an independent student. An independent student is one who meets any of these criteria:

•   Will be 24 or older by Jan. 1 of the school year for which the student is applying for financial aid

•   Is married

•   Is working toward a master’s degree or doctorate

•   Has children who receive more than half of their support from the FAFSA applicant

•   Is a member or veteran of the armed forces

•   Has undergone the legal process to become independent

•   The full list of qualifications is available at StudentAid.gov/dependency

Create an Account

Open the FAFSA site at https://studentaid.gov/h/apply-for-aid/fafsa.

Your login credentials for the FAFSA are known as your FSA ID. The ID will be used to confirm your identity and to electronically sign federal student loan documents.

If you are an independent student, you are the only one who needs to obtain an FSA ID. For dependent students, a parent or guardian will also need to obtain a FSA ID. Make sure you keep track of your FSA ID. If you and your parents both get IDs, don’t get them mixed up.

After creating your FSA ID, you’ll be asked to complete some security steps. You’ll need your own cell phone number and email address to enable two-step verification. You’ll also be asked to choose and complete “challenge questions” and to write down a backup code.

After verifying your cell number and email address, you can log in again and fill out the FAFSA. It’s a good idea to know the FAFSA deadlines but complete the application as soon as you can because some schools and states run out of financial aid dollars early.

The application is divided into a series of screens with no more than a few questions on each. The questions are organized under descriptive tabs, such as “School Selection” and “Parent Financials.” You can navigate forward and backward through the screens and tabs, and skip questions you want to come back to later.

Note: Instructions given for the rest of this post are for students. Any time the application says “you” or “your,” it’s referring to the student.

Tab 1: Student Demographics

What’s most important here is that you accurately fill in the fields, carefully proofreading for typos. You’ll be asked for basic information, such as your:

•   Name (entered exactly as it appears on your Social Security card), address, date of birth

•   Email and phone number

•   Permanent mailing address (usually your parents’)

•   State of residency

•   Education status, and whether you want to be considered for a work-study job (you may still turn down the job after it’s offered)

•   Driver’s license or state ID, if you have one

•   Information on foster care and your parents’ education levels

Recommended: How to Choose a Student Loan for College

Tab 2: School Selection

List all schools you’re considering, even if you’re not sure you’ll apply. (Colleges can’t access this list.) You can add or remove colleges from your FAFSA form later. Fields in this section include:

•   Your high school

•   Up to 10 colleges you hope to apply to. You’ll also be asked for your preferred housing situation: on campus, with parent, or off campus.

If you’re considering international study, don’t miss this story about student loans and study abroad.

Tab 3: Dependency Status

You’ll be asked a series of questions to establish your status as a dependent, such as whether you’re married, have children, armed forces status, foster care experience, and whether you’re homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Tab 4: Parent Demographics

If you’re a dependent student, this is where your parent or parents will need to share their demographic information. The section will also ask for details of your living situation.

If your parents can’t or won’t participate, you may answer that you are unable to provide parental information. Otherwise, you will need their Social Security number, date of birth, email address, state of residency, sibling information, and any other people your parents support.

Tab 5: Parent Financials

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool automatically transfers tax information to the FAFSA form. There are manual entry options as well. Parents may find this FAFSA Facts story helpful.

Tab 6: Student Financials

You’ll be asked similar questions to those in the Parent section.

Tab 7: Sign & Submit

Before you submit your application, you’ll be asked to review your answers and correct any errors. You’ll also be asked additional demographics info; your answers have no bearing on your application.

You and your parent(s) sign the FAFSA using your FSA IDs. If you have two parents, the parent who is signing must identify as Parent 1 or Parent 2 (a designation made when filling out parental demographics; you can always go back to that section to see which choice is appropriate).

Another (slower) option: You can print out the signature page, sign it, and mail it.

If you need additional help before submitting your application, see our step-by-step application guide.

Who Should Complete the FAFSA?

Anyone who could benefit from even a little college financial aid has nothing to lose by filling out the FAFSA. Many students leave money on the table every year by failing to complete it, and low-income families are often less likely to complete the form than wealthier ones.

Even if you are not eligible for federal aid, it’s worth your while to complete the FAFSA because most schools and states use FAFSA information to award non-federal aid.

To qualify for federal grants, work-study, and different types of student loans, you must be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen. You’ll need a valid Social Security number, with few exceptions.

You’ll need a high school diploma, GED, or another recognized equivalent. You’ll also need to enroll in an eligible educational program and maintain satisfactory academic progress.

You may become ineligible for federal aid if you owe money on a previous federal student grant, or are in default on a previous federal student loan.

Some types of federal aid are available only to people who demonstrate financial need. This includes the Federal Pell Grant and Direct Subsidized Loans. For the latter, the government pays the accrued interest while the borrower is in college or during most of their deferment periods.

What If I Don’t Qualify for Any or Enough Aid?

Merit aid, based on academic excellence, talent, and/or certain achievements, is available. Some colleges won’t consider you for any of their merit scholarships until you’ve submitted the FAFSA, according to the Department of Education.

Businesses, nonprofits, cultural organizations, and local groups also offer merit scholarships.

You can also look into state grants and scholarships. Every state has its own money and process for distributing aid. Some only require a completed FAFSA; others, a separate application.

Then there are private student loans, those not issued by the government. You can check to see what various lenders offer.

If you investigate private student loan possibilities, note that each lender has its own conditions. Some, for example, won’t allow you to defer payments if you get into a financially challenging situation after graduation.

Although private student loans don’t come with the benefits and protections that federal student loans have — like income-driven repayment plans and federal forbearance — they may help bridge funding gaps.

The Takeaway

Taking the time to fill out the FAFSA can pay off in the form of federal grants, loans, and work-study. The DOE assures applicants that there are no income limits and that even students whose parents make $100,000 or more may still receive aid. Many state programs and merit scholarships require that a student submit the FAFSA. And by the way, don’t put off your application too long: Some schools and states run out of financial aid dollars early.

If you think a private student loan could fill in gaps in the road to a college degree, check out what SoFi offers. There are no fees ever. Apply with a cosigner if you like, and enjoy flexible repayment options.

Add SoFi student loans to your study list.


Can I fill out FAFSA myself?

Yes, students can and should complete most of the application on their own. You’ll need some information from your parents, like their Social Security numbers and income figures. Tax information may be automatically imported from the IRS site. If your parents can’t or won’t participate, you may indicate that in the application.

What disqualifies you from getting FAFSA?

To qualify for federal student aid you’ll need a Social Security number, be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen, and have a high school diploma or equivalent. You’ll also need your own cell phone number and email address to complete the application. You can be disqualified if you owe money on a previous federal student grant, or are in default. As of 2022, drug convictions and Selective Service status are no longer considered in the application.

What is the income limit for FAFSA 2022?

There is no upper income limit to qualify for federal student aid. You may read about lower income limits that will zero out your Expected Family Contribution. However, all students are encouraged to complete the FAFSA. You never know what kind of federal aid you might qualify for, and many merit-based programs piggyback their applications on the federal application.

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