What is the FAFSA?

While you are considering which colleges to apply to or which programs to enroll in, you can complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known by the acronym FAFSA.

Whether you want to apply for free grants like the Pell, or you want to explore federally guaranteed student loans, complete the FAFSA to find out how much aid you will qualify for during the fiscal year. Additionally, most public colleges and universities require that you complete the federal student aid forms as a condition of entry into the school.

When to Complete the Student Aid Application

You can complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid before you are enrolled in a higher education program. In fact, the sooner you can complete the student aid form before you start your first year, the better. The student aid form includes a section for the school or schools to which you have applied or intend to apply to, but your choices can be changed, so do not get hung up on trying to nail your selections down before applying for financial aid.

The student aid application forms are valid for one year of funding and you cannot submit the forms until after January 1 of each year. You must also reapply to renew your funding each year. A few weeks after you complete the federal aid application, you will receive your Student Aid Report in the mail indicating the amount and type of financial aid that you will qualify for during the year.

Typically, you will receive your SAR about two weeks after submitting your student aid forms. The SAR simply estimates your eligibility and lists the answers you provided to the questions on the student aid forms. If you complete the online form and provide a valid email address, the student aid office will email you instructions for accessing your SAR online. Otherwise, you will receive the SAR by mail.

Submitting the Student Aid Application

You can find the online forms at the Federal Student Aid website. Complete the online forms or fill out the PDF version to submit your application. You also have the option of printing out and completing a hard copy application, and then mailing it to the federal office. You can also order three copies of the hard copy applications by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID. The online option is the fastest for receiving your Student Aid Report, known as the SAR, in a timely manner. The PDF and printed forms will take a while longer for review.

Additionally, the online version includes step by step instructions for completing all the fields and this digital version includes space for up to 10 schools. The paper and PDF versions include space for only four schools. (Source: FastWeb)


To submit your application online, you need to first obtain a PIN from the Department of Education’s PIN management site. Obtain your PIN prior to completing the student aid application as you will sign the application form with your PIN in lieu of your physical signature.

Estimate Your Aid

Before completing the federal student aid forms, you can use a financial aid tool like FinAid’s EFC tool to estimate the amount of aid for which you qualify. Answer a battery of questions to estimate the grants and loans that may be available to you. FinAid’s calculator will allow you to run various scenarios to see how changing your family’s financial contributions can impact your need-based aid funding.