The FAFSA® Process

Once you understand the FAFSA® process, you'll be able to better inform 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 Process

If you need to start at the beginning and learn what the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form 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 process.

Send your students to StudentAid.gov/fillingout for an introduction to the FAFSA form and tips on how to fill it out.

Once you're ready to help students and parents understand and fill out the application, use the tools and tips found on this page to assist with the FAFSA process.

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

Early Eligibility Indicator Tool: Federal Student Aid Estimator
Helping Students Learn About the FAFSA® Form
Financial Aid PowerPoint Presentations
Screenshots of fafsa.gov
FAFSA® Demonstration Site
Getting an FSA ID
Deadlines: When to Apply
Tips on Filling Out the FAFSA® Form
Automatic-Zero Expected Family Contribution and Simplified Needs Test
IRS Data Retrieval Tool
Dependency Status
Who Counts as a Parent
Filling Out the FAFSA® Form Without Access to Parent Information
Helping Students and Parents With the Schedule 1 Questions
Special Financial Circumstances
After Applying: Helping Students Understand and Respond to Aid Offers
Tools for Comparing Aid Offers
Verification


Early Eligibility Indicator Tool: Federal Student Aid Estimator

Federal Student Aid Estimator helps a potential applicant determine estimated federal student aid eligibility.

Tip: Students age 13 or older can use the Federal Student Aid Estimator at any time.

Federal Student Aid Estimator(Result Type: General)
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 Resource or Tool
Also Available in: Spanish(Result Type: General)

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Helping Students Learn About the FAFSA® Form

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

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


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.


Screenshots of fafsa.gov

If you'd like to incorporate a preview of the online application into your PowerPoint presentation, you may wish to use some of the "screenshots" (images of web pages) that we provide each September to show highlights of the upcoming version of the FAFSA site.

2023–24 FAFSA® Form on StudentAid.gov Preview Presentation(Result Type: General)
Description: Presentation that provides screenshots of the 2023–24 fafsa.gov application. Feel free to use the screenshots as you compile your own presentations.
Resource Type: Presentation


FAFSA® Demonstration Site

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

The demo site is updated in September each year to show the upcoming year's form. For example, when the demo site was updated in September 2022, it featured the 2023–24 FAFSA form.

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Getting an FSA ID

Students and parents can get FSA IDs either before or while filling out the FAFSA form at fafsa.gov. We encourage students and parents to get their FSA IDs before filling out the FAFSA form. The FSA ID can be used to electronically sign the online FAFSA form.

Please don't ask students to share their FSA IDs with you for safekeeping, even if you are helping them to apply for aid. The FSA ID must not be shared with anyone. If a student forgets their FSA ID, they can go to StudentAid.gov/login (or to 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 email address or mobile phone number, or by successfully answering their challenge questions.

Tip: If a student thinks the Social Security Administration might have their wrong name or date of birth in its records, the student should go to 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 their FAFSA form 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 2023–24 FAFSA form became available on Oct. 1, 2022, for the 2023–24 award year, which runs from July 1, 2023, to June 30, 2024. A student can submit the application any time until the end of the award year to apply for federal student aid. However, it's important to note that state higher education agencies and many colleges and career schools use FAFSA information to determine a student's eligibility for aid from their state or school funds. Therefore, the student should check StudentAid.gov/fafsa for their state deadline and the college's website for the school's deadline.

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Tips on Filling Out the FAFSA® Form

At StudentAid.gov/fillingout, we've set out many tips for students as they prepare to apply for aid. 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.


Automatic-Zero Expected Family Contribution and Simplified Needs Test

Certain FAFSA questions determine whether a student is eligible for the Automatic Zero of an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Based on their answers to those questions, applicants online may be able to skip certain income and asset questions.

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 the FAFSA form, applicants may be able to skip the asset questions.

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 they are 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.)


IRS Data Retrieval Tool

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) transfers student or parent IRS tax information directly into the FAFSA form. To ensure the information is secure, it is not displayed on the FAFSA site or the Student Aid Report. Besides the time saved by using the IRS DRT, another benefit for students and parents is that in most cases if the student is selected for verification, the student won't be asked to verify the information imported by the IRS DRT.

You may find that some students or parents are not offered the opportunity to use the IRS DRT while filling out the FAFSA form. Typically, this happens for one of these reasons:

  • The person indicated that they had not filed taxes.
  • The person's marriage date is after the end of the year for which tax information is being reported.
  • The person filed a non-U.S. tax form.
  • The person is married and filed as head of household or married filing separately.
  • Neither married parent entered a valid Social Security number.
  • Both married parents (or the only parent reported on the FAFSA form) entered all zeroes for the Social Security number.

For details and FAQs about the IRS DRT, send your students to StudentAid.gov/irsdrt.


Dependency Status

A student's dependency status is determined by a set of FAFSA questions (preview the questions in the fact sheet Am I Dependent or Independent, which you can download below). A dependent student must report information about their parent(s) on the FAFSA form.

Talking points:

  • A student cannot "declare" themselves independent, even if the student is self-sufficient.
  • A student's dependency status has nothing to do with whether their parents claim them on their tax returns.

The student should contact the financial aid administrator at the college they plan to attend to discuss special circumstances that might affect their 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 form. [174 KB]
Resource Type: Handout
Also Available in: Spanish(Result Type: PDF)


Who Counts as a Parent

Dependent students are required to report 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.

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

Who's My Parent When I Fill Out My FAFSA® Form? graphic(Result Type: IMG)
Description: Graphic that helps dependent students determine which parent's information to include in the FAFSA form.
Resource Type: Infographic
Also Available in: Spanish(Result Type: IMG)Text Version(Result Type: General)Text Version - Spanish(Result Type: General)


Filling Out the FAFSA® Form Without Access to Parent Information

The application asks whether the student is able to provide information about their parents.

  • If the student indicates that they have 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 application will not be processed, and the student must contact the financial aid administrator at the school they plan 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 form and no longer supports the student, federal law allows the student to submit the application without parent information and—after review by the financial aid administrator at the student's chosen school—potentially receive only a dependent Direct Unsubsidized Loan. The student must follow up with the financial aid administrator to find out what to do next to receive the loan.

Important details about filling out the FAFSA form 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.


Helping Students and Parents With the Schedule 1 Questions

The Schedule 1 questions ask students and parents if they filed or will file a Schedule 1 with their 2021 tax return.

If the student or parent is single, they should select if they
"No" didn't and won't file a Schedule 1.
filed or will file a Schedule 1 to report only one or more of the following items:
  • Unemployment compensation (line 7)
  • Alaska Permanent Fund dividend (line 8f)
  • Educator expenses (line 11)
  • IRA deduction (line 20)
  • Student loan interest deduction (line 21)
"Yes" filed or will file a Schedule 1 to report additional income or adjustments other than one or more of the six exceptions listed above.
"Don't know" doesn't know if they filed or will file a Schedule 1.
If the student or parent is married and filed a joint tax return, they should select if they
"No" didn't and won't file a Schedule 1.
filed or will file a Schedule 1 to report only one or more of the following items:
  • Unemployment compensation (line 7)
  • Alaska Permanent Fund dividend (line 8f)
  • Educator expenses (line 11)
  • IRA deduction (line 20)
  • Student loan interest deduction (line 21)
"Yes" filed or will file a Schedule 1 to report additional income or adjustments other than one or more of the six exceptions listed above.
"Don't know" doesn't know if they filed or will file a Schedule 1.
If the student or parent is married and filed a separate tax return from their spouse, they should select if
"No" both spouses didn't and won't file a Schedule 1.
both spouses filed or will file a Schedule 1 to report only one or more of the following items:
  • Unemployment compensation (line 7)
  • Alaska Permanent Fund dividend (line 8f)
  • Educator expenses (line 11)
  • IRA deduction (line 20)
  • Student loan interest deduction (line 21)
one spouse didn't and won't file a Schedule 1 and the other spouse filed or will file a Schedule 1 but only to report one or more of the six additions or adjustments listed above.
"Yes" either spouse filed or will file a Schedule 1 to report additional income or adjustments other than one or more of the six exceptions listed above.
"Don't know" doesn't know if either spouse filed or will file a Schedule 1.

When students and parents use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), the IRS DRT will transfer information about whether they filed a Schedule 1. The answer will be based on all current exceptions for filing a Schedule 1. The transferred data for the Schedule 1 fields will be masked.

Send your students and their parents to StudentAid.gov/2324/help/student-schedule-1 and StudentAid.gov/2324/help/parent-schedule-1.


Special Financial Circumstances

In some circumstances, the financial aid administrator may choose to make adjustments to certain FAFSA data to account for financial difficulties. The student should contact the financial aid administrator at their college to discuss their 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 their 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 they plan to attend. Unusual financial circumstances might be demonstrated with items such as medical or childcare 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 form. 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 form, the college will respond with an aid offer (sometimes called an award letter), whether by postal mail, email, 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.


Tools for Comparing Aid Offers

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

Meanwhile, hundreds of schools use the College Financing Plan, 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, they should look at the net cost of attending the school—the amount it'll cost them to attend once financial aid is taken into account. Send your students to StudentAid.gov/complete-aid-process/comparing-aid-offers to learn about aid offers and net price.

2022–23 Undergraduate College Financing Plan Template(Result Type: PDF)
Description: Consumer tool that can be used to help undergraduate students understand and compare school aid offers. [78 KB]
Resource Type: Handout

2022–23 Graduate/Professional College Financing Plan Template(Result Type: PDF)
Description: Consumer tool that can be used to help graduate and professional students understand and compare school aid offers. [81 KB]
Resource Type: Handout


Verification

The verification process aims to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of the federal student aid programs. A student selected for verification will be asked to show that they reported certain FAFSA information correctly. Different students are asked to verify different items.

If a student is selected for verification, the college(s) will contact the student 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.

In most cases, if a student uses the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, they won't have to verify income and tax information. If the student doesn't use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool and is selected for verification, the school may ask them to submit a tax transcript or a signed copy of their income tax return.

Want detailed information about verification? Learn about verification from a financial aid professional's perspective by reading the Application and Verification Guide.

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Verification Updates to the 2022–23 FAFSA® Cycle

For the 2022–23 FAFSA cycle, schools may ask students to verify their identity. Schools won't ask them to verify income or family size for federal verification purposes.