Although the FAFSA® may seem intimidating, it’s an invaluable document — as Ari, a freshman at Middle Tennessee State University, found out when she got nearly $10,000 in funding.

When I began thinking about college — and how I might pay for it — I figured that individually applying for scholarships would be my best bet for financing my education. My logic was that the more scholarships I secured, the fewer student loans I’d have to seek out, and the less debt I’d have upon graduation. While my mom was very supportive of my college goals and assured me she would contribute, I knew from our honest conversations that I needed to be a proactive partner in financing my education. The tough part was figuring out where to start.

It was my mom who really made me consider the FAFSA and realize what it could do for me. Because I was new to all this, I had some misconceptions about the form and who it was meant for — and the array of acronyms and programs didn’t help clarify things. I was under the impression that FAFSA had a very low income cap or was only for people who already received some form of federal aid. In fact, as I learned, there’s no income cap to prevent anyone from filling out and filing the FAFSA. Having been so focused on not taking out loans (or taking out as few as possible), I assumed it was exclusively for loans, and therefore irrelevant. But once I realized that the FAFSA could open up opportunities for both merit-based aid and federal funding, such as Pell Grants, I was ready to start the process.

I won’t lie: the whole thing was tedious and strenuous. My mom and I went through it together (she still remembered some things from when she applied to undergrad, and she even helped a few of my friends navigate the process). It was very detail-oriented, which was tough to manage when I was juggling my senior year and college applications. But doing the FAFSA paperwork paid off: not only did it make me eligible for several merit-based scholarships at Middle Tennessee State University, which I now attend, it also allowed me to secure a Pell Grant, a government-backed form of financial aid that does not need to be paid back.   

When all was said and done — in large part thanks to the FAFSA — I ended up with nearly $10,000 in a combination of grants, scholarships and small loans, including a $3,000 merit-based scholarship for my freshman year. That was not only enough to cover my in-state tuition (around $8,800 a year), but it also made a dent in my living expenses, textbooks and the like.

Do your best to get a handle on the whole financial aid landscape, and don’t be afraid to talk to your counselors, parents and even the financial aid office of the school you wish to attend.

As a newly minted college freshman, I know I’ll have to fill out the FAFSA every year, since situations, including earned income and scholarship opportunities, may change. This was another thing I didn’t realize when I had initially started the paperwork. Now I’m just glad that I know the process well enough to repeat it.

My advice would definitely be to do your best to get a handle on the whole financial aid landscape, and don’t be afraid to talk to your counselors, parents and even the financial aid office of the school you wish to attend. It’s never too early to begin to understand where money comes from, and there’s a good chance you’ll be surprised to learn what you’re eligible for. And remember, the FAFSA may seem tricky, but it’s worth it. Make sure to start filling out the application — it became available on October 1.

Financial Aid by the Numbers

  • For the 2015–2016 application cycle, 19,757,764 people completed the FAFSA.
  • FAFSA applicants span all income levels. There is no income cap to be eligible for financial aid.
  • 11,415,336 or 58 percent of applicants were eligible to receive Pell Grants.
  • For the 2014–2015 academic year, 86 percent of first-time, full-time students received financial aid at four-year universities.
  • 57 percent of financial aid was awarded in grants.
  • 34 percent of financial aid was awarded in federal loans.
  • Among those who did not apply for financial aid, 44 percent skipped it because they assumed they were ineligible.

Sources: Data Point – Undergraduates Who Do Not Apply for Financial AidFAFSA Data by Demographic Characteristics; Fast Facts: Financial Aid; Big Future – Financial Aid FAQs.

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