Every year, high school grads walk away from billions in free federal grant money that could help pay for college.

Why? Because they don’t fill out the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

Congress recently passed the FAFSA Simplification Act. This overhaul has simplified the FAFSA form to around 40 questions, down from over 100. Not only that, but you can autofill a lot of information from your parents’ tax returns. Since failing to file the form can mean missing out on free money, it’s worth it to take the time to gather necessary information and fill out the form as soon as it opens. Here are a few tips to help you get started.

What Do I Need to Apply?

The FAFSA process has been streamlined to help you complete the form quickly and accurately. The FAFSA website, StudentAid.gov, is easy to navigate on your computer or phone. Megan Coval, former vice president of policy and federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), advises what you’ll need during the process:

  • FSA ID is the number assigned when you and your parents create a FAFSA account online. This number stays the same, so it’s a good idea to save it in a safe place, since you’ll need it every year you apply for financial aid.
  • Social Security numbers (SSNs) for you and your parents, unless you are an independent student. See below if your parents are undocumented.
  • Driver’s license or other eligible form of government ID.
  • Federal school codes for the schools you will be applying to, available at StudentAid.gov.
  • Tax returns for you and/or your parents. Your tax returns–also known as Federal Tax Information (FTI)—can be retrieved and transferred directly into your FAFSA via a direct data exchange with the IRS. This system replaces the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT).
  • Asset records for you and/or your parents. These include bank statements and investment records to show your current assets (or, if you’re a dependent, your parents’ assets).


1. My parents make too much money, and I won’t qualify for aid.

Filling out FAFSA is worth the time and effort because most students qualify for some aid, regardless of their family income. Not only does filling out the form allow you to qualify for Direct Federal Subsidized Loans, but submitting the form also makes you eligible for a Direct Federal Unsubsidized Loan. This type of loan is a non-need-based loan that is low-interest, with flexible repayment options. If you even think you may need to borrow money, either now or in the future, it’s worth it to fill out the FAFSA.

2. FAFSA is only available for federal aid.

“A lot of the states and institutions will use FAFSA data,” Coval notes. “So if you don’t qualify for something at the federal level, maybe you’ll qualify for something at the state level or the institution level.” Filling out the FAFSA also qualifies you for other types of aid, including grants, work-study, and scholarships. Not only that, but having the FAFSA on file will help your financial aid office if your family’s financial situation changes and you need more aid than anticipated. Plus, some schools will use FAFSA data to determine non-federal grants and scholarships, so it’s worth it to have the information on file.

3. The FAFSA is too complicated and hard to fill out.

Historically, most people take less than an hour to fill out the form—and this was the old FAFSA that asked over 100 questions. Now that the FAFSA has been streamlined to around 40 questions, it can take you even less time. Plus, the new FAFSA uses logic to skip over questions that do not pertain to you, which will make it easier to complete. The most time-consuming part of the FAFSA is likely gathering documents and working with your parents to fill out the form accurately together.

4. I’m not eligible for a student loan because my parents are undocumented.

Students with undocumented parents can still fill out the FAFSA. “So long as you are a US citizen, permanent resident, or eligible noncitizen, you can fill out a FAFSA,” says Marie Groark, former director of Get Schooled, a national organization that provides teens with resources to get into college. If your parents are undocumented, just fill out nine zeroes (000-000-000) where it asks for their SSNs.

The FAFSA form requires students and parents to apply for an FSA ID, which also asks for SSNs. But Groark says you can still file for an FSA ID even if your parents are undocumented. “What a student needs to do in that case is simply print out the signature page, sign it, and have their parents sign it. Then they mail it in. Printing and mailing your signed FAFSA functions as a way around the need for parents to create an FSA ID.”

If your parents didn’t file a tax return for the prior-prior year, they can enter the requested financial information manually on FAFSA’s website. Your school may also require you to submit a Non-Tax Filer Parent Statement or Income and Expense Report. If your parents don’t want to submit their financial information, you can indicate on the FAFSA that there are special circumstances, which will allow you to complete the form without those details. However, you will have to contact the financial aid office of the school you get accepted to and provide documentation.

For more help, check out these other great resources:

  • Apply here to get your FSA ID.
  • Try our FAFSA assistant for help completing the application.
  • Visit StudentAid.gov to get codes of the schools where you want to apply and for any questions. You can also call 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

The FAFSA assistant is not an application for federal student aid and is not affiliated with the Department of Education.

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