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.

Credible is a website that helps you save on interest. Interested? Use Credible to shop around and find the best rate for you on a variety of personal loan products, including student loan refinancing and personal loans for debt consolidation.

Find your rate

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 you, your parents and the colleges you 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 yours and your 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 your mother's or father's 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.

If your parents are helping you fill out the application, don't let them get confused wherever it says "you" or "your." Those are referring to YOU, the student — not to them. You're the one applying.

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.

Sign up for Credit Sesame and see everything your credit score can do for you, find the best interest rates, and save more money at every step of the way.

Get Started—100% Free

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!

What's best way to use a personal loan?

A personal loan can be used to consolidate debt, take a much-needed vacation or complete that home improvement project.

With Credible, get a personal loan quote from vetted lenders in minutes - for free. There are no hidden fees and you can get prequalified in just three minutes.

Don’t let a lack of cash hold you back.

About the Author

Doug Whiteman

Doug Whiteman

Former Editor-in-Chief

Doug Whiteman was formerly the editor-in-chief of MoneyWise. He has been quoted by The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and CNBC.com and has been interviewed on Fox Business, CBS Radio and the syndicated TV show "First Business."

What to Read Next

Disclaimer

The content provided on MoneyWise is information to help users become financially literate. It is neither tax nor legal advice, is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. Tax, investment and all other decisions should be made, as appropriate, only with guidance from a qualified professional. We make no representation or warranty of any kind, either express or implied, with respect to the data provided, the timeliness thereof, the results to be obtained by the use thereof or any other matter.