The Free Application for Federal Student Aid filing season starts October 1 for the 2023-2024 school year. If you plan to attend college next year, experts say you might want to fill out the FAFSA application as close to the opening date as possible.
Many institutions award financial aid on a first-come, first-serve basis. Karen McCarthy, vice president of public policy and federal relations from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, recommends students get started.
"It is a good idea to do it on the earlier side," said McCarthy. "Whenever (colleges) run out of money, then that’s all the funding they have for the year."
Whether this is your first or fifth time filling out the application, here are some recommendations and background for completing this process and getting financial aid for your college career.
Jump straight to:
- Who should fill out my FAFSA, and how?
- When should I fill out the FAFSA for fall 2023-2024?
- Do I need to renew my FAFSA?
- How should I work with my parents to fill out the FAFSA?
- What if I make a mistake filling out my FAFSA?
How does FAFSA work?
The FAFSA is a free government application that uses financial information from you and your family to determine whether you can get financial aid from the federal government to pay for college.
The FAFSA will send your financial information to the schools listed in the application that you are interested in attending — up to 10 schools. Each school that admits you will send you a financial aid package. The amount of financial aid you get depends on each institution.
This application is also used to determine eligibility for other federal student aid programs, like work-study and loans, as well as state and school aid. Sometimes, private, merit-based scholarships also require FAFSA information to determine whether you qualify for their specific aid.
"Completing the FAFSA is probably the single most important thing you can do to get in line for scholarships, grants and other federal financial aid for college," said Rick Castellano, vice president of corporate communications at Sallie Mae.
Nitro College, a website that offers advice for college students, has a step-by-step guide listing all the questions in the FAFSA.
Anyone planning to attend college next year should fill out the FAFSA. Many decide not to apply, thinking their family’s income is too high to be considered, but McCarthy recommends all students fill out the application.
"There’s no commitment, there’s no charge," said McCarthy. "See what happens, you may be surprised. And if not, you have it on file in case you change your mind."
Students and parents can use the federal student aid estimator to get an early approximation of their financial package.
How do I fill out the FAFSA?
The first step is to create an FSA ID to help you log into your account electronically. If you are a dependent student, your parents also will need to create an account.
Before starting your application, McCarthy recommends using your permanent personal email, one that is “available to you and that you check regularly.”
Here are the documents you will need to fill out your FAFSA application:
- Your Social Security number
- Your driver’s license number, if you have one
- Your green card number, if you are not a U.S. citizen
- Your federal income tax returns, W-2s and other records of money earned
- Your bank statements and records of investments
- Your records of untaxed income
The application offers the option to get your federal tax return information from the IRS data retrieval tool.
McCarthy also recommends students use their physical Social Security card when they fill out the application, not only to make sure they use the right number, but to double-check their name.
“It’s much easier to avoid an issue in the first place,” said McCarthy. Some students who use their middle name in their daily lives make the mistake of listing it as their first name on the application, she said. This causes issues with the application that will need to be resolved.
Meeting deadlines is important to avoid missing out on any possible financial aid you might receive. Aside from the federal deadline, students need to know whether their state also has a deadline to be considered for financial aid.
The FAFSA application for the 2023-2024 year opens on October 1 and must be submitted by June 30, 2024.
Each state has different deadlines for financial aid. California has a March 2, 2023, deadline for many state financial aid programs, but has different deadlines for others.
The FAFSA needs to be filled out every year you plan to attend college. However, it usually becomes easier to navigate the process after you’ve done it once.
“I feel a lot faster every year,” said Haley Campbell Garcia, 28, who filled out the FAFSA for the first time in 2013 and has filled it out every year since, for her undergraduate and graduate degrees.
When you renew your application, some information is already pre-filled, but tax information and other items need to be updated.
If you are filing as a dependent student, you’ll need to provide the financial information of at least one parent. If you list both parents, you need to know how they filed their tax return — jointly or separately — and their official marital status, said McCarthy.
"It seems like it should be obvious, but sometimes people don’t necessarily know whether their parents are separated or actually divorced," said McCarthy. You can find the official marital status of your parents by checking their tax return.
Parents need to create their own FSA IDs. When your parents fill out the application, they can manually input their tax return information or use the IRS data retrieval tool.
Parents will need this information to fill out the FAFSA:
- Social Security number or green card number (if they are not U.S. citizens)
- Federal income tax returns, W-2s and other records of money earned
If a student is applying for the 2023-2024 school year, parents need to use their 2021 federal tax return information.
If you have questions about income information, you can call the federal student aid office at (800) 433-3243.