When Should I Fill out FAFSA? Here Are All Your Aid Questions, Answered.

As both state and federal student financial aid deadlines approach, make sure your application is ready to go.

Pallavi Kenkare Former editor
Pallavi was previously an editor for CNET Money, covering topics from Gen Z to student loans. She's a graduate of Cornell University and hails from Atlanta, Georgia. When she's not editing, you can find her practicing bookbinding skills or running at a very low speed through the streets of Charlotte.
Pallavi Kenkare
6 min read
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The cost of college tuition has been rising exponentially for the past two decades -- but the Free Application for Federal Student Aid can help soften the financial blow. Through FAFSA, almost 84% of first-year undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid. The FAFSA allows you to apply for federal student aid and loans in addition to grants and scholarships from organizations, states and colleges. 

In order to be considered for federal student aid for the 2021-22 academic year, you must submit your FAFSA by the June 30 closing deadline. Don't forget to keep an eye on state aid priority deadlines as well, as most are prior to the federal deadline. Though many have passed, priority deadlines for Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and New York are coming up. Keep in mind that if your FAFSA is submitted toward the end of the academic year, your grants or loans will likely come after the semester has been completed. In that case, the aid can apply retroactively to cover tuition that you already paid for the fall and spring, or it can apply to summer tuition. 

If you are applying for FAFSA for the 2022-23 academic year, you have a bit more flexibility -- that application window opened on Oct. 1, 2021, and will close on June 30, 2023. However, submitting your FAFSA as early as possible is crucial given that some financial aid funds may be limited and awarded on a first come, first serve basis. Some states and colleges will continue to award aid to FAFSA latecomers, but your chances of receiving certain grants, scholarships and work-study opportunities may decrease, or the award amount may be lower. If, for whatever reason, you are unable to file FAFSA, you can and should apply for outside merit- and community-based funding, as well. 

While there's a paper version of the FAFSA, applying online is the simplest and more efficient way for most people. Here's everything you need to know about filling out your FAFSA.

How to fill out FAFSA

1. Gather all relevant documents

To get started, you'll need these things handy:

  • Social Security number
  • Alien Registration Number (for non-US citizens)
  • driver's license (if you have one)
  • Federal income tax returns (FAFSA uses information in your tax returns from two years prior -- for the 2022-23 FAFSA, you would use your 2020 tax return). You'll also need W-2s and other tax records, bank statements and investment records. You'll be given the option to import this information directly from the IRS website.
  • Records of untaxed income

2. Create a Federal Student Aid ID 

Your FSA ID is your online account username and password. You can use this login to fill out the FAFSA, as well as to complete loan counseling and use the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Help Tool. FAFSA will ask you to provide privacy questions to protect your data. Even with these extra measures, make sure your password is strong and secure, as FAFSA has access to a lot of your financial information. 

You'll also be asked to create a save key -- if you're a dependent student, this temporary code allows you to quickly pass off sections of your FAFSA between the student and parent. I'll explain how to determine if you're a dependent student in the next step.

FAFSA Deadlines*

Academic YearFAFSA Application OpensFAFSA Closing Deadline
2021-22 Oct. 1, 2020June 30, 2022
2022-23 Oct. 1, 2021June 30, 2023
*state application deadlines vary

3. Fill out your FAFSA for the desired year

Once you have your FAFSA ID and save code set up, you're ready to start filling out the application. There are six sections you'll navigate through before signing your application:

  • Student demographics: Here, you'll fill out student demographics information, such as full legal name, date of birth, educational background and gender. 
  • School selection: Next, you'll want to select the schools that will receive your FAFSA information. You can add up to 10 schools to your FAFSA -- and you can remove schools at any time to make room for new schools. For federal student aid, the order you list your schools doesn't matter. However, if you live in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont or West Virginia, your state aid agency may require you to list in-state schools first to be considered for state aid.
  • Dependency status: Your FAFSA filing status will determine whose income needs to be reviewed when considering your financial aid needs. If you're a dependent, your aid decision will depend upon both your income and the income of your parent(s) or guardian(s), even if they do not intend to contribute toward your education. Your parents or guardians will need to create their own FSA ID to access your FAFSA, and provide their own demographic and financial information. Both you and your parents or guardians will need to digitally sign off on your FAFSA using your respective FSA IDs.

    If you are an independent, your aid decision depends solely upon your finances and personal information. You may be an independent if you are: 

    • 24 years old by the last day of the following academic year
    • Married
    • A graduate or professional student
    • A veteran
    • An orphan or ward of the court
    • An emancipated minor
    • Homeless or at risk of becoming homeless
    • Have dependents of your own
  • Parent demographics: If you are a dependent, your parents or guardians will need to provide the relevant information. This is when the save key comes in handy. Save your application, then ask your parent or guardian to log in. Entering the save key will bring them to this section in the application. 
  • Parent financials: Parents or guardians of dependent students will then be navigated to this section to enter their financial data, based on their tax return. They can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to import tax information by answering a few questions. Once this information is entered, parents should save the application and pass it back to the student to finalize.
  • Student financials: Lastly, you'll fill out the student financials section. You can also use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool for this section. 

4. Sign and submit your FAFSA

Once your FAFSA is completed, sign it online using your FSA ID. If you are a dependent, your parents must sign as well. If you filled out a paper FAFSA, you can mail it to Federal Student Aid Programs, P.O. Box 7650, London, KY 40742-7650. 

Your application will be processed in three to five days if you've submitted it online, or five to 10 days if you submitted a paper FAFSA. Once your application is processed, you'll receive a summary by email of all of the information you've provided in the form of a Student Aid Report. Review your SAR to confirm the information is accurate. If any information is missing or inaccurate, log back into your account and correct your FAFSA as soon as possible. 

Typically, your financial aid award letter will arrive after you've been accepted into a college, usually in March or April (or December or January if you applied early). The letter will detail your financial aid package, and will likely come by mail and email; most colleges also allow you to access your award package via your admissions portal. 

Upon receiving your award letter, you'll have to notify your school of the aid you're accepting -- whether scholarships, grants, work-study or loans -- by either confirming your choice via a student portal online form, or by signing and mailing back your aid form to the college. 

Remember, you can always appeal your financial aid if you feel it is not sufficient. Contact your college's financial aid office to learn more about the appeals process, and make sure you have documentation of any and all special circumstances within the past two years that may have impacted your family's financial situation.