If your financial circumstances have changed due to COVID-19, you should still complete the FAFSA® based on the information in your tax return. Then contact the colleges where you are applying to discuss any changes. Click here for more information.

Although the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) may seem intimidating, it’s an invaluable document — as Ari, a student 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.

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.

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 detailed, 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, 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.

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 becomes available on October 1.

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

Interview for this article was conducted in 2017.