Every year, high school graduates walk away from billions of dollars—as much as $3.75 billion in 2021—in free federal grant money that could help pay for college. Why? Because they don’t fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, aka the FAFSA.

The FAFSA has a reputation for being daunting, but recent improvements have made it easier than ever. The streamlined form now clocks in at just under 40 questions—down from 108—which means it will take even less time to complete. Plus, failing to file it can mean losing out on free money. Freddy Burciaga, Dean of Student Retention & Completion at Trinidad State College in Colorado, shares a few tips to help you get started.

The first step in finding out what financial aid you qualify for is the FAFSA. It’s an opportunity for a student to receive financial funding to pay toward college. Even if you don’t think you are eligible you should fill it out because most people qualify for some financial aid.

Tip 1: Find out if you’re eligible

Everyone that is a US citizen or legal resident attending a participating Title IV funding institution is eligible to apply for financial aid. If you are a student that is a legal resident or US citizen, but your parents are not, it is important to still fill out the FAFSA. If your parent does not have a Social Security number (SSN), simply put zeros (000-00-0000).

Tip 2: What you will need

  • SSN (or government ID)
  • Income tax information from student and parents (for dependent students)
  • Demographic information
  • Name of the institution you are attending
  • Housing status (on or off campus)

Tip 3: Keep your FSA ID

  • Get your FSA ID at StudentAid.gov
  • If you’re a dependent student, your parent will also need an FSA ID

This number will be used for the FAFSA each year you’re attending college.

Tip 4: Apply as soon as possible after October 1

It is important to apply for financial aid as soon as possible because there is aid that could be granted on a first-come, first-served basis.

Tip 5: Apply every year

You have to complete the FAFSA every year you are in college. The financial aid application uses your prior-prior year tax return, so if there is a financial income change in the family household, it can affect the eligibility for financial aid, as well as how much you can receive.


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

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