How to Fill Out FAFSA: Step by Step Guide

By Jennie Flaming

If you need money for college you need to know how to fill out the FAFSA. The FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. An important word here is FREE. No one should ever charge you money to apply for any kind of financial aid.

We’ll walk through the process step by step so you can feel confident that you’re filling out FAFSA correctly! The FAFSA opens for the following year on October 1st, so October of your senior year is when you want to do this.

The FAFSA is for US Citizens, Legal Permanent Residents (Green card holders) and several other types of visas. If you are undocumented, you will apply with a state based financial aid application if your state has one. In Washington State, that form is called the WASFA. Learn more about financial aid for undocumented students here.

IMPORTANT: if you are a US Citizen and your parents are undocumented, you WILL fill out the FAFSA. The financial aid application is based on the student, not the parent, even though most students will provide their parents information.

The FAFSA opens for the following year on October 1st and you want to complete it as soon as you can. You cannot fill out the FAFSA before October 1st of your senior year in High School.

Step 1: Determine if you will provide parent information (probably you will)

For most high school and college students the answer here is YES. The system in the United States is based on parents paying for college even if the student is over 18 and most students are dependent, which means they will provide parent information. You will need to do this even if your parents will not be paying for college. Their income will still determine your eligibility for different types of financial aid.

You are an independent student if any of the following apply to you:

  • You are 24 years old or older
  • You are active duty in the military or are a veteran
  • Are married
  • Have a child who you are supporting
  • Have a legal guardian
  • Have been in foster care since you were 13
  • Are homeless

Read more on the US Department of Education’s website about the fine print of the criteria for being an independent student. You can also check out this video which covers the same information about dependency.

Keep in mind that if you are under 24 and any of these situations apply to you, colleges will ask for documentation that proves that situation applies to you, so make sure to gather those documents now so you are ready to provide them when asked (you will not need them to fill out FAFSA, but you will need them later). You will not be able to receive financial aid without providing this documentation.

Step 2: Locate Information You Need

You will need your social security number (this is a great time to memorize it if you haven’t already!). If you have a job that you get W2’s for, you’ll need to find the information for how much you earned last year.

For parents, you’ll want to have your tax forms available while you fill out FAFSA. You may be able to transfer all the information you need directly from the IRS so you may not need to enter information from your tax forms.

The income and tax information you will provide on FAFSA will be for the previous year. For example, if you are filling out the FAFSA in October 2020, you will be using your information from 2019.

If your income has significantly changed over that year, don’t worry! You can contact colleges directly and update your information. It’s important to do that AFTER you fill out the FAFSA. All colleges have a process for this.

Step 3: Get an FSA ID (electronic signature PIN)

You will fill out the FAFSA online, and in order to sign in you will need an FSA ID.

You will need an FSA ID and so will one parent. You will use this PIN to sign the FAFSA electronically when you are finished.

It can take a few days for your FSA ID to become active, so I recommend doing this before you are actually filling out your FAFSA. You can even do this before October 1st, just keep track of your FSA ID!

Check out this video from the US Department of Education showing you how to create your FSA ID and FAFSA account.

By the way, this video might be helpful to come back to if you run into trouble with your FAFSA account of FSA ID:

Step 4: Fill out the FAFSA Application online

To get started filling out the FAFSA, head over to the FAFSA website to get started. On the log in page, click “I am the student” and then you will be asked to enter your FSA ID username and password. The following describes the pages you’ll see as you go through the FAFSA and how to complete them.

If you’re not sure what to put in a box, click on the “?” symbol that shows up by all questions. This will open up a screen which explains what you need to enter.

Another important thing to note when you fill out the FAFSA: “You” and “your” ALWAYS REFERS TO THE STUDENT. Not the parent.

Choose the Correct Year

This is slightly tricky and a common mistake when student’s fill out the FAFSA! You are applying for financial aid for NEXT school year, so make sure to select the following year, not the current one. For example, if you are filling out the FAFSA in the Fall of 2020 and you are a senior in the Class of 2021, you will fill out the 2021-22 FAFSA (not the 20-21 FAFSA).

On October 1st, the following year’s application opens.

Create a Save Key

The Save Key is different from your FSA ID. It’s just a password that you use for that specific year’s FAFSA only. Make sure to write it down or remember it!

Introduction Page

This pages doesn’t have questions for you to answer, but it does provide some helpful information. You can always click back to this page if you have questions later.

Student Demographics

In this section, you answer basic information about yourself. This page is extremely important because if you make a mistake on your name, birthdate or social security number it’s very hard to fix later.

DO NOT GUESS. Make sure you enter your social security number exactly right and that your name matches your social security card exactly. This is your legal name and the one you need to use to fill out the FAFSA.

Also, make sure to enter your birth YEAR and NOT THE CURRENT YEAR. You might be surprised how often this happens!

Next it will ask for your email, phone number and address. Those will probably fill automatically from your FSA ID log in.

The next page covers your state of residency (answer how long you have lived there) and your citizenship status. FAFSA is for US Citizens and eligible non citizens. There is a “?” button there to see the details for eligible non citizens.

The next section covers your education and your education plans. It asks what your high school completion status will be the next school year (select high school graduate, GED or homeschool) as well as what degree you’ll be working on. For this, select “1st Bachelor’s degree“. If you’re a high school student or continuing college student, you will not have completed a bachelor’s degree (four year degree) by the next school year so answer no to this question.

IMPORTANT: If you are a high school senior starting college next year, you will select “first year, never attended college” EVEN IF you did running start or another program where you earned college credit as a high school student.

Say “yes” to being considered for work study because you want to have all possible options available to you! You do NOT have to take a work study job if you say yes to this question.

The next question asks for your gender. Unfortunately you have to choose either “male” or “female”. Note that if you are male, you are required to register for the selective service. You can register within the FAFSA application. Registering for the selective service is NOT joining the military. It IS registering for the draft, which is required by law for males. The last time the draft was used to bring people into the military was in 1972.

The student demographics section of FAFSA wraps up with asking you for your driver’s license number (leave blank if you don’t have one), if you’ve been in foster care and the highest level of education completed by your parent or parents.

School Selection

This part of filling out the FAFSA starts with the name, city and state of your high school. Click “search” and then click on the result that matches your high school.

Next, you’ll select the colleges you’d like to have your FAFSA sent to. You do not need to know their code, you can just enter the information in the boxes and it will bring up options for you to select (similar to what you did for your high school).

IMPORTANT: Send the FAFSA to every college you are considering applying to, including two year colleges and trade or technical schools. You can enter up to 10 schools. If you are applying to more than 10, after your FAFSA is processed and sent to colleges you can go back in and change some of them to get them all. DO NOT WAIT until you have applied or been accepted!

For housing plans, I always recommend choosing that you plan to live on campus. This is because it makes you eligible for the most aid and it’s good to keep your options open! It’s much easier to later decide to live at home than it is to later decide to live on campus. If you are 100% sure that you are going to be living at home (and you can commute to all the colleges you are applying to) then it’s fine to say “with parent” or “off campus”. If there is any chance you might live on campus make sure to select that.

Dependency Status

This section asks a series of questions that determine if you are a dependent or independent student. If you are a high school student it’s very likely you will be dependent. This information was discussed in more detail in Step 1.

Based on your answers, if you ARE an independent student, you will not see the next set of questions about parents. If you are a dependent student, then you WILL see questions about your parents which you will need to answer.

Parent Demographics

If you are an independent student (see Step 1), you will not see these questions. If you are a dependent student and providing parent information, this section has questions you’ll need to answer about your PARENTS.

The first question is about your parent/parents marital status. If you have a single parent, you will only answer questions about that parent. If your parents are married, or the parent who provides the most financial support to you is married to a step parent, you will provide information about BOTH parents.

If you have undocumented parents, enter all zeros for your parent’s social security number. You may need to hit the submit button twice. It will work! I know that sounds a little crazy.

How to fill out FAFSA parent information, a screenshot showing what to enter for undocumented parents
If your parents are undocumented, enter all zeros for their Social Security Number. DO NOT ENTER ANY OTHER NUMBER HERE.

You will then answer questions about your parents state of residence and household size. Note that it’s possible the household size will be different from what your parent/parents report on taxes. That’s totally ok when you fill out the FAFSA.

Parent Financial Information

In this section, you will provide your parents financial information, unless you are an independent student (see step 1). If you are an independent student, you will not see these questions.

The first question is if your parent has filed taxes for the previous year. Then, you may have the option to securely transfer tax information from the IRS to the FAFSA. This is called “IRS data retrieval”. If you have this option, definitely take it! It makes sure that you can’t make a mistake entering information and it also makes it less likely that you’ll need to provide additional documentation to your colleges.

How to fill out the FAFSA, a screenshot of the IRS Data Retrieval Button
If possible, use the IRS Data Retrieval tool, this makes the FAFSA go faster and requires less verification later. If you don’t see this button or have this option, it’s no big deal, you can enter it manually.

If your parents are undocumented you will not be able to do IRS data retrieval, even if your parents pay taxes with an ITIN. You also will not be able to use it if your parents information including their address does not exactly match their tax forms.

If you can’t use data retrieval it’s not a big deal, you can enter the information manually on the next few pages. This is where you’ll want to have your tax forms available so you can quickly locate and enter the information. You’ll need to know your adjusted gross income, your income earned from working and any taxes paid. If you’re not sure where to look on the forms, click the “?” and it will show you where to find it.

When asked what programs your parents or family members receive, again, if you don’t know what it is, you probably don’t have it. If you do have it, then click the box. Note: If your parents are undocumented you will not see these questions for them because they are federal social programs.

The three pages have a lot of questions about various income related things that might or might not apply to you. In general, if your parent doesn’t know what it is, they probably don’t have it. The “?” button again will tell you where to find the information on your tax forms if it applies to you.

The last page of this section sometimes trips people up, but not you, because you’re reading this article! It has three questions dealing with your parents bank accounts and investments.

For the balance of checking and savings accounts, an estimate is fine. Most people don’t have a consistent amount of money in their accounts and that’s totally fine. An estimate is fine.

For real estate investments, do NOT include the value of your parents home if they own it. This is where you include other real estate or money (called assets) that your parents own, if any. If they don’t have any assets, just leave it with a zero. Similarly, for the final question about business, this does not apply to most small family owned businesses with less than 100 employees.

Screenshot of the parent assests page of the FAFSA.

STUDENT Financial Information

These are the same questions that were asked about parent financial information but this section is questions about the STUDENT’s finances. Most high school students do not earn enough money to pay taxes (though some do) so if you haven’t paid taxes and don’t have your own bank account that’s no problem. Just put zeros for any questions that don’t apply to you.

Only include information here for accounts that are in your name.

Similar to parent financial information, if there are things that you don’t know what they are, you probably don’t have them.

Make sure to check the box for free and reduced lunch if you receive that at school.

In the child support box, remember that this is for YOU the student. If your parent receives child support for you, they will enter that in the parent information. You would only enter it here if YOU the student are receiving child support for your own child that you are supporting.

YOU ARE SO CLOSE TO BEING DONE FILLING OUT YOUR FAFSA!!! Just a couple more steps!!

Sign and Submit!

You’re almost there! The last step is to sign and submit. First, you will see a question asking if you are a preparer. Answer no to this question if you or your parents are filling out the FAFSA.

The next page gives you the opportunity to review and print everything you’ve entered. You can always go back and change anything you need to fix. Make sure to take a moment to look it over before going to the next page.

The next page is where you agree to the terms. Click agree and next.

Now you’re ready to sign! You will sign along with ONE parent.

You will electronically sign and then your parent will. If your parent is unable to get a PIN to sign, you can also print a signature page and mail it in. This takes longer to process, but works just fine. Parents who are undocumented or green card holders will have to print and mail the signature page. Make sure not to miss this step!

Finally, you are ready to submit! The final step is to click the “submit my FAFSA now” button!

A confirmation page will pop up and also be emailed to you.

WOOHOO! Congratuations! You have filled out your FAFSA! So, what happens next?

Step 5: What happens after I submit my FAFSA?

After you fill out the FAFSA, the US Department of Education will confirm it has been signed by you and your parent. The information will then be securely transferred to the Washington Student Achievement Council (for Washington State residents) to determine your eligibility for state financial aid. It will also be securely transferred to the Financial Aid Office at the colleges you requested.

Colleges that admit you will also use your FAFSA information to give you a Financial Aid offer that you will receive after you are accepted. They may also ask you for some additional information so make sure to keep checking your mailbox and your email and get any requested information back to them right away.

Once you receive all your offers, you’ll be ready to make your decision and you’re off to college!

You will need to complete the FAFSA every year while you are in college.