Figuring out how to pay for school can be a major source of worry. If you want to get federal financial aid, you’ll have to go through the FAFSA: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The FAFSA application form only takes about 30 minutes to fill out, and yet, this tricky little form can be seriously intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A few expert FAFSA tips will allow you to fill out your 2018-2019 or 2019-2020 application form without losing your mind.

1. Don’t Assume You Won’t Qualify

A 2017 Discover survey showed that only 45 percent of parents filled out a FAFSA application for their children. Many parents don’t bother because they assume that they won’t qualify – but they’re often completely wrong.

There’s no income cut-off to qualify for federal assistance. Even families earning more than $200,000 a year can qualify for need-based aid, Forbes reports – but you won’t be considered unless you apply!

2. Start Your Application Early

It’s important to remain aware of the official FAFSA deadlines – the applications generally become available on October 1 of the previous year, and the deadline to file is June 30.

However, you should never wait until just before the FAFSA deadline to file your application. Many colleges set their own, earlier deadlines for financial aid, and they often award financial aid on a first come first served basis. The sooner you file, the better.

3. Create an FSA ID First

Each student and parent needs their own FSA ID to fill out the FAFSA application. This is just the username and password that you’ll use to sign the FAFSA form online. It takes one to three days for the U.S. Department of Education to process your FSA ID, so go ahead and make one as soon as possible.

You can obtain an FSA ID here.

3. Gather the Necessary Documents

While you wait for your FSA ID to be verified, gather all the other documents that you’ll need for your FAFSA application:

  • Social security number (or alien registration number for eligible non-citizens)
  • An eligible government ID, such as a driver’s license
  • Tax returns for the current or previous year
  • Asset records, such as bank statements and investment records
  • Records of untaxed income, such as child support
  • A list of colleges to apply to

4. Figure Out Which Assets to Include

You and your parents should decide together how to fill out the FAFSA form to get the most money possible, particularly if your family has investments, savings accounts, properties, or extenuating circumstances.

For example, you shouldn’t include your primary home or retirement plan when listing the value of your investments and real estate. Those numbers aren’t taken into account.

Also, keep in mind that you only need to report how much money you have in your accounts at the moment that you file; the FAFSA application doesn’t ask for debt or bill information. It’s wise to use any major cash balances to pay outstanding bills or loans before you file.

5. Apply Online, Rather Than on Paper

The online FAFSA application form is easier and quicker than the paper version in two ways. First, much of the online form is automated, so you can skip irrelevant questions. And second, the Department of Education processes your application faster online.

The online application also features an IRS data retrieval tool, so if you’ve already filed your taxes for the year, you won’t have to manually enter your tax information.

6. Only Use the Official FAFSA Website

Make sure you’re applying on the official FAFSA website: fafsa.gov. It’s completely free to fill out a FAFSA application form online, so you should never be prompted to fill out your credit card information.

7. List Every College You’re Considering

You don’t have to be accepted into a college in order to send your FAFSA form to them. To save time later, simply send the form to every school that you’re considering. You can list up to 10 schools. If you change your mind or don’t get in, the school will simply disregard the form.

8. Chat With a Financial Aid Advisor

If you have even a teeny-tiny question about your financial aid eligibility, talk to your high school guidance counselor or a financial aid advisor at your college of choice. They can often alert you to specific funds that are only available in your state or to specific populations (for example, students with learning disabilities). They can also tell you how to apply for private college financial aid in addition to the FAFSA.

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About the Author

Kim Wong-Shing is a writer in New Orleans. She has a Bachelor's degree in Education from Brown University and a Master's degree in Education from Bank Street College. She worked as a teacher for four years before transitioning into full-time writing. Kim has also written for Lifehacker, LittleThings, HelloGiggles, and a variety of other outlets.