1. Decide how you'll file
There are two ways to submit a FAFSA, and — as the name suggests — both are free. (Don't be fooled by scammy websites that will try to charge you.)
You can print out a paper application, fill it out by hand and send it in via old-fashioned snail mail. Or, you can submit your application online.
If your family has reliable internet access, it's best to file online. Your application will be received faster and will be easier to amend, which you may want to do eventually. (More on that later.)
If you do decide to drop your completed FAFSA in the mail, be sure to use delivery confirmation. You'll want to know that it gets to where it's going.
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2. Pull together the documents you'll need
Experts say this step can take longer than actually filling out the application.
A FAFSA requires a lot of information about the student, their parents and the colleges they want to apply to. You'll need to know the federal school codes for all the schools, even the ones at the bottom of your list.
You'll also need to have tax returns handy: both the young person's and their parents'. If your taxes haven't been filed yet, you can submit a FAFSA based on last year's tax info and update before the deadline, once the taxes are done.
The FAFSA includes instructions for using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which can automatically pull in tax information as soon as the returns are filed.
3. Fill out the FAFSA carefully
Don't rush through the application. Avoid common mistakes, like botching your driver's license number or Social Security number.
Don't leave any fields on the form blank, because that can lead to your application being rejected. If you're tempted to leave a line empty, enter either a zero or "Not applicable" instead.
Read more: Do you fall in America's lower, middle, or upper class? How your income stacks up
And remember, parents, if you're helping your kids fill out the application, don't let get confused wherever it says "you" or "your." Those are referring to the student — not to YOU. They're the one applying for aid.
And this may sound obvious, but don't forget to sign the FAFSA before you submit it. If you're filing the form online, you can "sign" using your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. You'll probably have to create one to start the application process.
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4. Get it in early
The federal government accepts FAFSA forms from October through the end of June, but many universities, states and scholarships may require that a FAFSA be submitted sooner.
In some cases, a FAFSA might help you win a state-sponsored grant, but when the state money runs out, so does your luck. If you wait too long to complete the aid application, you could miss out on funds you qualify for.
Many scholarships are first come, first serve. Your best bet is to file the FAFSA in October as soon as applications open up to have the highest possible chance of receiving as much aid as possible.
But don't submit it and forget it. If circumstances change — like your parents' income drops or your family is hit by a natural disaster — you'll want to update your FAFSA, because you might have a better chance of getting money.
5. Don't make the biggest mistake: not filing
Federal grants, student loans and scholarships all rely on FAFSA information. Some schools require students who want to work on campus to file a FAFSA.
If you're not financing your education 100% out of your own pocket, you'll need to submit a FAFSA. Families that mistakenly assume a FAFSA is just a ticket to student loan debt can miss out on tons of financial aid that doesn't have to be paid back.
It's better to file a FAFSA and not need it than to not file and regret it.
The FAFSA might seem like a bit of a chore, but it can be the first step toward navigating often massive financial requirements — so you can attend the school of your dreams!
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