When you’re on a tight budget, covering the cost of a postsecondary education can be just as challenging as getting into the school of your dreams. To ease the financial burden of college for low-income undergraduates, the U.S. Department of Education provides free financial awards in the form of Pell Grants to eligible applicants. Complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see if you qualify for this type of aid.

Prepare the Paperwork

Before beginning the application process, gather personal identification documents and financial records. Jot down your social security number and, if you are a dependent student, your parents’ social security numbers. Students who are not U.S. citizens will need to use their alien registration number. If you have a driver’s license, have your number on hand. Next, assemble your federal tax records or tax returns, your spouse’s tax records (if you are married) and your parents’ tax records (if you are a dependent). Collect information detailing untaxed income, such as child support received and accumulated interest, your savings and checking account balances, investments and business assets. If you are a dependent, you will need to obtain this information from your parents.

Create an Online Account

Begin the FAFSA application process by creating a personal account. You must visit fafsa.gov, and create a student profile. During this part of the process, you will receive a federal student aid personal identification number (PIN). You will use your PIN to sign the FAFSA electronically, sign loan contracts and access your information online.

Fill Out a FAFSA

Select “Start New FAFSA” on the FAFSA government website, and provide the requested information, including the college or career school where your information will be sent. A list of financial questions will help you determine your dependency status. Answer them carefully and truthfully. If you are a dependent student, you have to report your parents’ background and income. Once you are finished, electronically sign the FAFSA with your PIN, and submit the form.

Wait for an Award Letter

After you complete the FAFSA, you must wait to receive an award letter to find out what federal aid you are eligible to receive. The maximum Pell Grant award changes annually. During the 2013 to 2014 award year, the maximum award amount is $5,645. The size of your grant will vary depending on your financial need, the estimated cost of attendance at your college and enrollment status (i.e., full-time or part-time). Your family’s expected family contribution is also a factor.

Collect Funds

The way federal aid money is dispersed varies from school to school. The U.S. Department of Education awards money to your college, which in turn determines how you receive funds. Pell Grants are typically applied directly to your tuition, fees or room and board. Whatever award money remains is paid to you or deposited into your bank account. Contact your college financial aid office to find out its payment options.

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