With college financial aid season in full swing, it’s likely that you’ve recently submitted your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). So what happens next? Take a look at this financial aid timeline to find out what to expect post-FAFSA.

First, Get It Done

If you haven’t gotten around to submitting your FAFSA, you’ll want to get to it as soon as possible. You no longer have to wait until your parents file their taxes if that’s what is holding you up. Now you can fill out the FAFSA as early as October 1 and use last year’s tax return. This makes it easier to complete than in prior years.

If you plan to complete the FAFSA online, the site’s IRS Data Retrieval Tool will import your relevant tax return information into your FAFSA. Not only does it save you some work, but it eliminates the chance of incorrectly keying in numbers.

And Off It Goes

What happens to your FAFSA once it’s been completed? Your application goes to the schools you listed on the form, as well as your state higher education agency. Those entities will use your information to do their own number crunching to determine how much student aid to offer you.

While You’re Waiting

Your financial aid application determines the amount and type of federal student aid you’re eligible for, and to some extent, state aid and institutional grants and scholarships. There are, however, other funding opportunities that you can pursue to help offset the cost of college, including outside grants and scholarships.

Students can qualify for outside grants and scholarships for a wide range of reasons (e.g., financial need, academic achievements, athletic skills, community service, religious affiliations, artistic talent). By doing some scholarship sleuthing, you can find those that are the best match for you.

Next: The SAR

Within a few days if you filed the FAFSA online (or up to four weeks later if you filed by mail), you’ll receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). This letter is a recap of all the FAFSA data you submitted, giving you a chance to correct any errors before the process moves forward. If anything is incorrect or missing, follow the directions for making changes as soon as possible.

Most award letters go out in early spring, but the timing will depend on the school’s admissions deadline.

The most important item on your SAR is the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is a measure of your family’s financial health, and it’s used to help determine your student aid eligibility. This is what the schools will use when putting together a financial aid package offer for you. However, it’s important to note that the EFC is typically not the amount of money your family will pay for college.

Verification Time

Some students may have to go through a process called verification after filing the FAFSA. Essentially, it’s when a school asks you to confirm data that you reported. You may be required to submit copies of a tax return, for instance. This is standard operating procedure, so it’s nothing to worry over. It’s an extra step for you, but it’s usually a simple upload or form to return by mail. The key here is to comply as quickly as possible so as not to hold up the financial aid decision.

The Big Day: Financial Aid Award Letters Arrive

Finally, here comes the big reveal. When you receive your financial aid award letters from the schools that accepted you, you’ll get a breakdown of just how much aid you’ve qualified for, and how much you’re expected to pay. Most award letters go out in early spring, but the timing will depend on the school’s admissions deadline.

If you have been accepted to multiple schools, you can compare acceptances and financial aid packages. Each school’s financial aid offer will vary, and you have the opportunity to appeal your award amount if your financial situation changes since completing the FAFSA.

Getting through the financial aid process can be stressful, but it will all be over before you know it. By submitting your forms on time, and responding to additional requests for information quickly, your financial aid award letters will start rolling in, and then the real work begins: making the final college decision. Good luck!

FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.