Once you understand the FAFSA process, you'll feel more comfortable advising students.

Familiarize yourself with our in-depth FAFSA information and then use the tips and tools on this page to guide your students.

The FAFSA

If you need to start at the beginning and learn what the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is, or if you're already somewhat familiar with it but want the full details of the process laid out for you, refer to Parts 2 and 3 of the Counselors and Mentors Handbook on Federal Student Aid. The handbook is a comprehensive counselor-focused resource for information about federal student aid and the FAFSA.

Send your students to StudentAid.gov/fafsa for an introduction to the application and tips on how to fill it out.

Once you're ready to help students and parents understand and fill out the FAFSA, use the tools and tips on this page along each step of the path.

We'll also keep you up to date on the latest FAFSA news, draft FAFSA for next year, etc.; and if you want FAFSA completion data by high school, we've got that too.

Early Eligibility Indicator: FAFSA4caster
Helping Students Learn About the FAFSA
Financial Aid PowerPoint Presentations
Screen Shots of fafsa.gov
FAFSA Demonstration Site
Getting an FSA ID
Deadlines: When to Apply
Tips on Filling Out the FAFSA
Automatic-Zero Expected Family Contribution and Simplified Needs Test
IRS Data Retrieval Tool
Dependency Status
Who Counts as a Parent
Filling Out the FAFSA Without Access to Parent Information
Special Financial Circumstances
After Applying: Helping Students Understand and Respond to Aid Offers
Tools for Comparing Aid Offers
Verification


Early Eligibility Indicator: FAFSA4caster

FAFSA4caster helps a potential applicant determine estimated federal student aid eligibility. Learn about FAFSA4caster at StudentAid.gov/fafsa/estimate.

Tip: Students of any age can use FAFSA4caster at any time.

FAFSA4caster(Result Type: Web Resources and Tools)
Description: Financial aid calculator that gives an early estimate of eligibility for federal aid and helps students understand their options for paying for college.
Resource Type: Web Resources and Tools
Also Available in: Spanish(Result Type: General)
Related: FAFSA on the Web(Result Type: General)

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Helping Students Learn About the FAFSA

Before your students dive in to filling out the FAFSA, you might want to give them an idea of what to expect. Below are some tools that will help you introduce the FAFSA to students.

Talking point: Remind students that the FAFSA is a free application and is found at fafsa.gov.

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Financial Aid PowerPoint Presentations

You'll find a selection of presentations on the Toolkit's Search Financial Aid Tools and Resources page. You can edit them to include information about your state's financial aid, scholarships available in your area, and so on, and use them at financial aid information events.

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Screen Shots of fafsa.gov

If you'd like to incorporate a preview of the online FAFSA into your PowerPoint presentation, you may wish to use some of the "screen shots" (images of Web pages) that we provide each fall to show highlights of the FAFSA for the upcoming year.

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FAFSA Demonstration Site

A demonstration site is available so you can increase your own understanding of the FAFSA and show it to students before they apply. At the demo site, you can complete a sample FAFSA, make corrections, or check the status of the application. However, when you choose "submit," the information is not actually submitted. The site is purely a learning tool.

Access the FAFSA demo site, enter the user name eddemo and the password fafsatest, and you're all set. The site displays both the English and Spanish versions of the online FAFSA. The demo site is updated in December each year to show the upcoming year's FAFSA.

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Getting an FSA ID

Students and parents can get FSA IDs either before or while filling out the FAFSA. The FSA ID can be used to sign the FAFSA or a Master Promissory Note for a federal student loan or for several other purposes.

Please don't ask students to share their FSA IDs with you for safekeeping, even if you are helping them to fill out their FAFSAs. The FSA ID must not be shared with anyone. If a student forgets his or her FSA ID, he or she can go to StudentAid.gov/login (or to fafsa.gov, or any Federal Student Aid website that requires log-in) and follow the links that give the option of retrieving the username or password via the student's verified e-mail address or by successfully answering his or her challenge questions.

Tip: If a student thinks the Social Security Administration might have the wrong name or date of birth for him or her in its records, the student should go to www.ssa.gov as soon as possible to find out how to correct any errors. The information must be correct before the student can get an FSA ID and his or her FAFSA can be processed.

Find resources you can use to educate students and parents about the FSA ID.

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Deadlines: When to Apply

The 2016–17 FAFSA will become available on Jan. 1, 2016, for the 2016–17 "award year" (which runs from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017). The 2017–18 FAFSA will become available on Oct. 1, 2016. A student can submit the FAFSA any time until the end of the award year to apply for federal aid. However, it's important to note that state higher education agencies and many colleges use FAFSA information to determine a student's eligibility for aid from their state or school funds. Therefore, the student should check fafsa.gov for his or her state deadline and the college's website for the school's deadline.

Talking point: One of the most frequent misconceptions we hear is that you can't fill out your FAFSA until you've done your taxes. In fact, because many colleges have quite early FAFSA deadlines, we recommend that a student fill out the FAFSA as early as possible in order to meet those deadlines. It is okay to estimate information on the FAFSA; the student will have the opportunity to correct the data after filing his or her taxes. Learn about the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Note: The need to estimate and then correct FAFSA information should disappear for virtually all students once the FAFSA asks for older tax information, starting in 2017–18.

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Tips on Filling Out the FAFSA

At StudentAid.gov/fafsa, we've set out many tips for students as they prepare to submit their FAFSAs. Here, we wanted to give you some additional information that might help you as you advise your students.

Meanwhile, you can find out how to host or find a FAFSA completion workshop for your students.

Order Federal Student Aid Publications(Result Type: PDF)
Description: Learn how to order free materials so you can help your students learn about federal student aid for college or career school.
Resource Type: How-To Guides

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Automatic-Zero Expected Family Contribution and Simplified Needs Test

Certain questions on fafsa.gov determine whether a student is eligible for the automatic assignment of an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of zero. Based on their answers to those questions, applicants might be able to skip certain questions about income and assets.

Additionally, the Simplified Needs Test allows some students to have assets excluded from consideration in calculating the EFC. Based on their answers to certain questions on fafsa.gov, applicants might be able to skip the questions about assets.

You can find details on the automatic-zero EFC and the Simplified Needs Test (referred to as the simplified formula) in the "Expected Family Contribution" chapter of the Application and Verification Guide, a document written for financial aid administrators but appropriate for others who want a good depth of understanding of financial aid.

Note: For purposes of determining eligibility for state financial aid, some states require asset and income information. Students who are residents of such states will be asked those questions regardless of their eligibility for the federal Simplified Needs Test formula or for an automatic-zero EFC. Students who are not residents of such states will be asked whether they want to skip the optional questions. Some schools, too, require the student to complete those questions to determine eligibility for institutional aid, so the student should check with the schools to which he or she is applying before deciding to skip those questions. (Providing all income and asset information will not negate the student's eligibility for the Simplified Needs Test formula or for the automatic-zero EFC.)

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IRS Data Retrieval Tool

Applicants who fill out the FAFSA online have the option of automatically retrieving their income and tax data from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and having it automatically inserted into the FAFSA.

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) becomes available in early February, once tax data are available from the IRS. (For the 2016–17 FAFSA, this means the IRS DRT will be available a few weeks after the FAFSA launches. For the 2017–18 FAFSA and future FAFSA cycles, which will ask for older tax information, the IRS DRT will be available immediately when the FAFSA launches on October 1.)

If a student submits the FAFSA with estimated tax information, he or she may log back in at fafsa.gov after filing his or her tax return, select the option to make corrections, and use the IRS DRT to access the information. Note that the student should allow time for the IRS to process his or her taxes—up to three weeks in the case of e-filers, and up to 10 weeks in the case of paper filers.

Make sure your students are aware of the option to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

Tip: To figure out when a particular student's tax information is likely to be available via the IRS DRT, visit StudentAid.gov/whenirsdrt.

Simple Steps to Transfer Tax Information Into Your FAFSA Graphic(Result Type: IMG)
Description: Graphic that explains how to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer tax information into the FAFSA—and when the tool is available. [101 KB]
Resource Type: Infographics
Also Available in: Text Version(Result Type: General)Spanish(Result Type: IMG)Spanish Text Version(Result Type: General)

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Dependency Status

A student's dependency status is determined by a set of questions on the FAFSA (set out in "Am I Dependent or Independent," which you can view or download below). A dependent student must report information about his or her parent(s) on the FAFSA.

Talking points:

  • A student cannot "declare" himself or herself independent.
  • A student's dependency status has nothing to do with whether his or her parents claim him or her on their tax returns.

The student should contact the financial aid administrator at the college he or she plans to attend to discuss special circumstances that might affect his or her dependency status. For details about what types of circumstances might result in a dependency override, and for information about how you can support a student who has special circumstances, see Part 2 of the Counselors and Mentors Handbook on Federal Student Aid.

Am I Dependent or Independent?(Result Type: PDF)
Description: Worksheet to help students determine their dependency status when filling out the FAFSA. [137 KB]
Resource Type: Handouts
Also Available in: Spanish(Result Type: PDF)
Related: FAFSA Dependency Status Graphic(Result Type: IMG)FAFSA: Determining Dependency Status Video(Result Type: VIDEO)Who Is My ''Parent'' When I Fill Out the FAFSA?(Result Type: PDF)

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Who Counts as a Parent

Dependent students are required to include on the FAFSA income and other information from the dependent student's legal parents (biological or adoptive) regardless of the parents' marital status or gender, if those parents live together.

Find plain-language guidance for students and their families at StudentAid.gov/fafsa-parent.

Who's My Parent When I Fill Out My FAFSA? Graphic(Result Type: IMG)
Description: Graphic that helps dependent students determine which parent's information to include in the FAFSA.
Resource Type: Infographics
Also Available in: Spanish(Result Type: IMG)Text Version(Result Type: General)Spanish Text Version(Result Type: General)
Related: Who Is My ''Parent'' When I Fill Out the FAFSA?(Result Type: PDF)FAFSA Dependency Status Graphic(Result Type: IMG)

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Filling Out the FAFSA Without Access to Parent Information

The FAFSA asks whether the student is able to provide information about his or her parents.

  • If the student indicates that he or she has special circumstances such as having left home due to an abusive situation, fafsa.gov allows the student to submit the application without entering data about the parents. The student's FAFSA will not be processed, and the student must contact the financial aid administrator at the school he or she plans to attend. The financial aid administrator will ask for additional information to determine whether the student can be considered independent.
  • If the student indicates that the parent refuses to provide information on the FAFSA and no longer supports the student, federal law allows the student to submit the FAFSA without parent information and—after review by the financial aid administrator at the student's chosen school—potentially to receive only a Direct Unsubsidized Loan. The FAFSA is submitted without parent information; and the student must follow up with the financial aid administrator to find out what to do next to receive the loan.

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Important details about filling out the FAFSA without access to parent information are in Part 2 of the Counselors and Mentors Handbook on Federal Student Aid. Similar information, written for the student, is on the StudentAid.gov/fafsa-parent page.


Special Financial Circumstances

In some circumstances, the financial aid administrator may choose to make adjustments to certain items on the FAFSA to account for financial difficulties. The student should contact the financial aid administrator at his or her college to discuss his or her situation if

  • the family has unusually large medical bills or nursing home expenses that are not covered by insurance;
  • the family is paying unusually high elementary or secondary school tuition or dependent care expenses; or
  • the student or a parent has recently lost his or her job.

The best thing you can do to help a student who has unusual financial circumstances is to encourage the student to gather as much written evidence as possible and to provide it to the financial aid office at the school he or she plans to attend. Unusual financial circumstances might be demonstrated with items such as medical or child care bills or with proof of the loss of employment of a family member.

Talking point: The financial aid administrator is not required to adjust financial elements on the FAFSA. The school's decision is final and cannot be appealed to the U.S. Department of Education.

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After Applying: Helping Students Understand and Respond to Aid Offers

Once a student has filed the FAFSA, the college will respond with an aid offer (contained in what is often called an award letter), whether by postal mail, e-mail, or another means. You might find that students bring their aid offers to you for help in understanding them.

Talking point: A student doesn't have to accept all the aid offered; for instance, it's okay to ask the school to lower the amount of a loan if the student's budget allows for less borrowing.

Tip: To help students understand the different types of aid they're being offered, you might want to familiarize yourself with the aid available in your state and at the schools to which many of your students apply.

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A number of schools refer to Direct Subsidized Loans and Direct Unsubsidized Loans as Stafford Loans. If your student sees a reference to a Stafford Loan in his or her aid offer, you can be fairly sure that a federal student loan is on offer.


Tools for Comparing Aid Offers

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a tool for comparing colleges' financial aid offers. Students can enter school name, cost of attendance, financial aid that's been offered, and more in order to compare the net costs of attending several schools.

Meanwhile, hundreds of schools use the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, a document that sets out the school's aid offer in a simple way so the student can easily understand it and compare it to offers from other schools.

Talking point: A student should not be scared off by a college's cost of attendance. Instead, he or she should look at the net cost of attending the school—the amount it'll cost him or her to attend once financial aid is taken into account. Send your students to StudentAid.gov/fafsa/next-steps/comparing-aid-offers to learn about aid offers and net price.

Financial Aid Shopping Sheet(Result Type: PDF)
Description: Consumer tool that can be used to help students understand and compare school aid offers. Many colleges and career schools have begun using this document. [115 KB]
Resource Type: Templates

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Verification

The process called verification aims to ensure the effectiveness of the federal student aid programs. A student selected for verification will be asked to show that certain information on his or her FAFSA is correct. Different students are asked to verify different items.

If a student is selected for verification, the college(s) will contact him or her to indicate what documentation the student must submit to the school and by what date. The student should be sure to provide all documentation promptly. It is unlikely that the school will process financial aid for the student until the required documentation is received.

If a student uses the IRS Data Retrieval Tool and does not subsequently change any of the information retrieved, he or she will not have to verify that information. If the student does not use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool and is selected for verification, he or she will have to submit a tax transcript.

Want detailed information about verification? Learn what the financial aid professionals learn by reading the Application and Verification Guide.

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