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 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 application 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 on this page along each step of the path.

We'll also keep you up to date on the latest FAFSA news, draft application 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® Form
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® Form
Automatic-Zero Expected Family Contribution and Simplified Needs Test
Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT)
Dependency Status
Who Counts as a Parent
Filling Out the FAFSA® Form 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)


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 and on the myStudentAid mobile app (available at the App Store for iOS or Google Play for Android).


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.


Screen Shots of fafsa.gov and the myStudentAid Mobile App

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

We also offer a set of screen shots of the myStudentAid mobile app.

2019–20 FAFSA Screen Shots aka FAFSA on the Web Preview Presentation(Result Type: PPT)
Description: Presentation that provides screen shots of the 2019–20 fafsa.gov application. Feel free to use the screen shots as you compile your own presentations. [39 MB]
Resource Type: Presentations

2018–19 myStudentAid Mobile App Preview Presentation(Result Type: PPT)
Description: Presentation that provides screen shots of the 2018–19 myStudentAid mobile app. Feel free to use the screen shots as you compile your own presentations. [28 MB]
Resource Type: Presentations


FAFSA® Demonstration Site

A demonstration site is available so you can increase your own understanding of fafsa.gov and show it to students before they apply. At the demo site, you can complete a sample FAFSA form, 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 fafsa.gov. The demo site is updated in September each year to show the upcoming year's application.

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Getting an FSA ID

Students and parents can get FSA IDs either before or while filling out the application at fafsa.gov. The FSA ID can be used to access the myStudentAid mobile app and to sign the online FAFSA form or a Master Promissory Note for a federal student loan, as well as 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 apply for aid. 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 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 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 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 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 2019–20 FAFSA form became available on Oct. 1, 2018, for the 2019–20 "award year" (which runs from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020). The 2018–19 FAFSA form became available on Oct. 1, 2017, for the 2018–19 award year, which runs from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019. A student can submit the application 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 StudentAid.gov/fafsa#deadlines for his or her 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 assignment of an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of zero. Based on their answers to those questions, applicants online or on the myStudentAid mobile app 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.)


Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT)

The IRS DRT automatically transfers student or parent tax information into the FAFSA form. To ensure the information is secure, it is not displayed on the FAFSA site, the myStudentAid mobile app, or the Student Aid Report. Besides the time saved by using the IRS DRT, another benefit for students and parents is that if the student is selected for verification, he or she 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 he or she 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 his or her parent(s) on the FAFSA form.

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.


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.

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)


Filling Out the FAFSA® Form Without Access to Parent Information

The application 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, the myStudentAid mobile app and fafsa.gov allow 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 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 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 to receive only a 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.


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 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 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 (contained in what is often 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.


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 use this document. [240 KB]
Resource Type: Templates


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 he or she 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 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, 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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