Guide to the FAFSA Form: Application Steps & Requirements

Guide to the FAFSA Form: Application Steps & Requirements
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Every year, financial aid officers at colleges and universities persuade students to submit their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Yet FAFSA completion rates continue to go down. Sixty-eight percent of students submitted their FAFSA forms for the school year 2020-2021—a decline from 71% in the previous year and 77% two years earlier (Sallie Mae, 2021).

The question now is, why did students and their families not complete FAFSA? The reasons are varied—44% of families said they believed they would not qualify for any financial aid, making this the top reason for not even applying. Meanwhile, 34% said they missed the deadline, found filling out the form too complicated, or did not have the required information.

To help address these problems, this guide to the FAFSA will provide an overview of the application as well as a detailed, step-by-step discussion on how you can complete your FAFSA form. It will also cover other relevant information, such as deadlines, where to file, and tips on how to go about your application.

Guide to the FAFSA Table of Contents

  1. What is FAFSA?
  2. Why is FAFSA important?
  3. How does FAFSA work?
  4. FAFSA Qualifications
  5. Important FAFSA Application Information
  6. The Impact of Submitting Your FAFSA 


What is FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students submit this form if they want to apply for financial aid for college or graduate school. Every year, the average federal grant amount a student receives is $5, 179 (Hanson, 2021). Whether you want to apply for financial aid from the federal government, state governments, or most higher education institutions, you will need to accomplish the FAFSA application.

The federal government uses the FAFSA form to assess the eligibility of a student for different types of financial aid, including scholarships, grants, student loans, and even federal work-study opportunities. Unfortunately, 85% of college students are not aware of this potential benefit. FAFSA is also used to determine the expected family contribution (EFC) in a student’s financial aid package. The EFC is the amount of money the government thinks a student’s family could reasonably set aside for one academic year.

As the name indicates, completing the form is absolutely free. You should stay away from any websites, offices, or individuals asking for payment in exchange for assistance in filling out the FAFSA form.

Guide to the FAFSA 1

Why is FAFSA important?

Accomplishing the FAFSA can help families lower the cost of college education, making it important for incoming higher education students. By filling out this form, a student can increase his or her chances of receiving financial aid since it is used to determine the eligibility for scholarships and grants—money that does not need to be paid back.

Unfortunately, many families do not apply for scholarships and grants because of misconceptions. For example, 44% of students did not apply for scholarships and grants because they did not think they would win. Another 28% said they did not have the time and 20% said it was too much effort to complete applications (Sallie Mae, 2021).

FAFSA is also important because it is one of the greatest predictors of whether a high school senior will move on to college. Studies show that there is a strong correlation between FAFSA completion and enrollment in postsecondary education. Seniors who complete the FAFSA are 84% more likely to enroll in college. On the other hand, among students from the lowest socioeconomic bracket, FAFSA filing is associated with a 127% increase in immediate enrollment to college (NCAN, 2021)

Source: Sallie Mae, 2021

How Does FAFSA Work?

Student loan statistics show that student loan debt in the United States has reached almost $1.6 trillion and trends show no sign of it decreasing.

Unfortunately, a ballooning student loan debt negatively impacts the quality of life as stated by authors James Kvaal and Jessica Thompson in their study “Rising Student Debt and the 2020 Election.” The research states, “Student debt can be burdensome. While the economic benefits of college often accrue over time, loan payments begin six months after the student leaves school. Research shows that student debt can reduce rates of homeownership, affect career choices, and even delay decisions to start a family.”

But there is free money out there for college. In fact, 56% of families used scholarships, and these covered 16% of education costs in AY 2020–21 (Sallie Mae, 2021). Filing the FAFSA is how you can open the door to scholarships.

You can fill out the FAFSA form using a computer. Alternatively, you can access it on your mobile device via the myStudentAid app, which is available on both Google Play and the App Store. You can also complete the FAFSA PDF form, which you then need to print out and mail to the address listed on the form. However, most people use the online method since online forms also get processed faster.

Here are the steps to completing the FAFSA form. It usually takes less than an hour to finish if you have all your information ready.

Step 1: Prepare the required documents

The FAFSA asks for basic personal information and details about your finances. What income qualifies for FAFSA should not really be a concern since there is no maximum income to qualify for aid. There is, however, an earnings cap that qualifies a student for a zero-dollar EFC. For AY 2022-2023, for instance, if a dependent student’s family has a combined income of $27,000 or less, their EFC would be zero.

Here are some of the documents required by FAFSA. Note that some might not be applicable to all applicants. If you are a dependent, your parents also need to have their personal and financial information ready.

  • Driver’s license
  • Social Security number
  • Alien registration number
  • Federal tax information or tax returns
  • Records of untaxed income
  • Cash, savings, and checking account balances
  • Investments other than the home in which you live
  • List of schools the student would like to attend

Important note: If you do not have all your documents ready yet, you can still start filling out the FAFSA form. You can always start, save the form, and go back to it later when you have the rest of the information on hand.

Guide to the FAFSA 2

Step 2: Generate an FSA ID

Students, parents, and borrowers need to create an account with the Federal Student Aid office and generate their FSA ID to transact and complete tasks related to their financial aid applications. An FSA ID is used for filling out the FAFSA form on a computer and on the mobile app. It is also used for other activities, such as applying for repayment plans, completing loan counseling, signing the Master Promissory Note (MPN), and using the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Help Tool.

The requirements for creating an FSA ID are:

  • Social Security number
  • Email address or phone number

Important note: Parents and students should generate their own specific FSA IDs. Applicants are not allowed to use someone else’s ID for their transactions. Parents who do not have a Social Security number will not be able to create an FSA ID. If this is the case, the student can simply input zeros where the form asks for the parent’s Social Security number then select the option to print a signature page at the end of the form.

Step 3: Fill out the FAFSA form

Once you have your FSA ID, you can start filling out the FAFSA form. Select “Start Here” on the website if you are filling out the form for the first time. If you are on the mobile app, select “FAFSA form” on the dashboard, select your role, and then select the “Start a New FAFSA Form” button.

What is the “Save Key”? 

Whether you are filling out your FAFSA form online or on the mobile app, the Save Key is what you will use to access your FAFSA form at a later time in case you do not finish filling it out in one session. You will be able to create your save key near the beginning of the FAFSA application.

What to Do for FAFSA Renewal

For FAFSA renewal, go to the site and select “Log In.” When options appear, select “I am the student, and want to access the FAFSA form.” Then enter your FSA ID and select “FAFSA renewal” in the options. When completing the form for renewal, many sections will be automatically filled for you both on the website and mobile app. Make sure to update the parts/information that has changed since the previous year.

Important note: Only a student can start a FAFSA renewal. Dependent students that need assistance from their parents in accomplishing the renewal can start the process using their FSA ID and then share their save key details with their parents so they can access the FAFSA form.

Sections on the FAFSA Form

The FAFSA form has five major sections. Read the instructions carefully and make sure the information you write is accurate. 

  • Student Demographics. Includes personal information of the student such as name, date of birth, social security number, home address, phone number, and citizenship.
  • School Selection. You must list at least one school in this section. You can list up to 10 schools online and four schools on the pdf form. The schools on your list will use your FAFSA details to assess what types of aid and the amount you can receive.
  • Dependency status. You will answer a series of questions that will determine whether you are a dependent or independent student. If you are a dependent student, you will need to include parent information as well as your personal information.
  • Parent Demographics. This is for dependent students. Parents or guardians will fill out this section.
  • Financial Information. You will enter financial information such as federal tax returns and W-2 documentation.

When you are done with all the sections, you will need to place your signature on the form and wait for a confirmation message that your FAFSA form has been successfully completed. 

Filling out the FAFSA can be intimidating but it is also a way to combat rising student loans. Among students who did not file FAFSA, 32% thought that they might not be eligible for financial aid, while 28% did not want to take on debt. Another 23% did not have information on FAFSA and 9% thought the FAFSA forms were too much work (NCES, 2019). But you can definitely make the application process run smoothly if you prepare your documents beforehand and complete your form way ahead of the FAFSA deadline.

Source: NCES, 2019

FAFSA Qualifications

You will be happy to know that the percentage of first-time, full-time degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students who were awarded some form of financial aid in AY 2018-2019 was 86%. So, it is worth submitting your FAFSA because there is a high percentage of students who actually receive aid (NCES, 2021). 

There are basic requirements to be eligible for financial aid. But as you can imagine, students have different personal and family circumstances; thus there will be specific requirements you might need to meet to qualify for aid. 

Basic Eligibility Requirements for Student Aid:

  • Demonstrated financial need
  • U.S. citizens or eligible non-citizens
  • Enrolled in an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Has a high school diploma or General Education Development (GED) certificate
  • Has a valid Social Security number (students from the Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau are excluded)
  • Registered with Selective Service (if you are a male, you must register between the ages of 18 and 25)
  • Sign certifying statements on the FAFSA form stating that
    • you are not in default on a federal student loan,
    • you do not owe money on a federal student grant
    • you will use the student aid only for education purposes

Non-U.S. citizens, students with criminal convictions, and those with intellectual disabilities must meet additional eligibility requirements. Also, undocumented immigrant students are not eligible for federal student aid. 

As for students who think they will not get aid because their parents earn a good income, they can still apply for merit-based scholarships and loans. You can refer to the website for details on special requirements if you fall in any of the student categories above. 

Source: NCES, 2021

Important FAFSA Application Information

The key to successfully completing your FAFSA is to remember important dates for the application since 34% of students miss the FAFSA deadline (Sallie Mae, 2021). You can start completing FAFSA forms on October 1st of every year. The FAFSA deadline for AY 2022-2023 is 11:59 p.m. CT on June 30, 2023. Any corrections or updates must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CT on Sept. 10, 2023.

Moreover, schools and states have their own FAFSA deadlines. So, you need to contact the college or university you wish to attend. For state deadlines, you can check the list

What happens after you submit your FAFSA form? 

The great thing about completing your FAFSA form online is that you can immediately check whether it went through or not. If you submit the paper form, you can check its processing status only after seven to 10 days from the date it was mailed. 

Your application will be one of the following:

  • Processing. You might need to wait three to five days before the application will be made available to the schools you listed.
  • Processed Successfully. Your application went through successfully. No further action is needed.
  • Missing Signatures. There are missing signatures on your application.
  • Action Required. You will need to contact your school to resolve the issue.

What is SAR? 

Within a few days after successful completion of your FAFSA, you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). You will be notified by email or you can access your SAR online via by logging in and using your FSA ID. 

The SAR contains the summary of the information you entered in the FAFSA form. You should check this form and make sure all information is correct. Your SAR will also contain your EFC. The schools you listed on your form will receive your FAFSA information and determine how much aid you can get. 

Guide to the FAFSA 3

The Impact of Submitting Your FAFSA

Taking the time to understand and complete the FAFSA form sets the groundwork for receiving not only federal student aid but also other available financial aid from your state or college. It is a way to get access to free college money, especially if you do not want to take a loan and spend an average of 10-30 years paying for student debt. But most financial aid is “first-come, first-serve” so that is why it is important to prepare early and submit your form as early as possible. This will help you avoid any delays that can reduce the amount of financial help you can get. 

Moreover, aside from the FAFSA form, some schools might require other forms from students applying for scholarships or grants. The best way to know this is to get in touch with the financial aid office of the schools you would like to attend and confirm if you need to accomplish additional forms.  

As the demand for higher education continues to increase, so does the price tag on college tuition. Remember that you have options to lower the cost of getting a degree. All you need is to follow the steps in this guide to the FAFSA and ask for help if you do not understand some questions in the form. You can also contact the FAFSA help center at 1-800-433-3243. There is also a self-serve virtual chat assistant on the FAFSA website where you can get quick answers to frequently asked questions about filling out the form. 



  1. Hanson, M. (2021). Average Cost of College and Tuition. Education Data Initiative. Retrieved from
  2. Kvaal, J. & Thompson, J. (2020). Rising Student Debt and the 2020 Election. The Carsey School of Public Policy at the Scholars’ Repository. Retrieved from
  3. NCAN (2021). National FAFSA Completion Rates for High School Seniors and Graduates. Retrieved from
  4. NCES (2019). Why Didn’t Students Complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)? A Detailed Look. Retrieved from
  5. NCES (2021). Financial Aid. Retrieved from
  6. Sallie Mae (2021). 2021 How America Pays for College. Retrieved from
  7. (n.d.). Types of Aid. Retrieved from


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