How to Fill Out the FAFSA: A Complete Guide

by Jalen & Sarah Bromley
FAFSA Filing Guide

Unless you’re one of the lucky few who can afford to fund your education independently, FAFSA can make or break your college experience. Yet the application process is full of confusion — a Sallie Mae report found that only 25% of undergraduate students and parents could correctly identify the beginning of the FAFSA application window.

If you want to fare better, make sure you clue yourself up. To guide you through the process, we’ll run through everything you need to know about FAFSA, including how to fill out your application, common errors, deadlines, and what to do if your circumstances change.

FAFSA: A quick primer

If you’re already wondering how to fill out a FAFSA form, you probably don’t need us to tell you that FAFSA is an application to determine a student’s access to federal or state financial aid. Its full name is Free Application for Federal Student Aid, after all. Essentially, you submit your FAFSA application, and it will pass on your details to the relevant institutions (e.g., state governments and colleges).

But there are a few misconceptions. Some people believe that FAFSA is only for those with low incomes or who want to apply for student loans. Before we explain how to fill in your application form, let’s clear this up.

Types of financial aid

FAFSA is mostly associated with student loans, but it goes beyond that. The application also includes:

Some of these programs are merit-based, so being in a high-income household doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply.

Plus, since options like scholarships don’t even require repayment, you have nothing to lose from applying. 

How much aid you can access

The exact amount of financial aid you can expect depends on several factors, such as your household’s income level and the type of institution you attend. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average grant and scholarship aid for different income levels in the year 2020-21 were as follows:

Public institutionsPrivate nonprofit institutionsPrivate for-profit institutions 
$0 to $30,000$12,300$28,110$7,310
$30,001 to $48,000$11,830$31,320$7,920
$48,001 to $75,000$8,900$29,940$6,900
$75,001 to $110,000$5,080$26,570$5,970
$110,001 or more$3,060$22,370$7,000

As you can see from this table, even if you have a household income of above $100,000, you may still be eligible for a significant amount of aid.

You can use a financial aid calculator to work out exactly how much you’re eligible for.

When is the FAFSA deadline?

FAFSA runs alongside the academic year. For 2024-25, that falls between July 1, 2024 and July 30, 2025. 

Generally, FAFSA opens on October 1. However, this will change temporarily for the 2024-25 academic year, when the date will be delayed to December 31 (before reverting to October in future years).

Staying on top of deadlines is crucial, but in the case of FAFSA, this can be a little tricky since you have more than one deadline to consider. FAFSA isn’t an application for a single aid or loan but a form you use to apply for different financial initiatives. 

As a result, there are separate deadlines for your college, your state, and the federal government.

Federal deadline

The simplest of the three is the federal government deadline. The latest you can submit your application is June 30, 2025 at 11:59 p.m. in Central time (CT). However, we don’t recommend leaving things this tight.

You can also make corrections and changes to your form up to September 14 2025. 

After the deadline passes, you can only apply for aid for the next academic year.

College deadlines

Every college’s deadline is different, but they typically fall early in the academic year — and there may also be a separate “priority deadline” that you have to meet to get the most money possible. 

You should be able to find the deadline on your college’s website easily, but if not, you can contact the financial aid office.

State deadlines

States have their own deadlines for state-specific grants and scholarships. You can find out more on the Student Aid website.

Missing these deadlines lowers your chance of receiving aid and means that even if you’re accepted, you will likely receive a lower amount.

How to fill out the FAFSA

There’s no need to be intimidated by the process of filling out your FAFSA form. While there are a few steps to follow, no individual step is difficult. 

Some documents to gather ahead of time include:

  • Social security numbers or alien registration numbers
  • Tax returns and records of untaxed income
  • Driver’s license or state IDs
  • Child support records
  • Bank statements
  • Financial records like investments or business net worth

Create a FSA ID

Before you can start filling out your application, you’ll need to create your FSA ID, which identifies you throughout the process. Everyone filling in the form needs to create their own FSA ID—this typically means a parent but could also be a spouse, stepparent, or anyone else in your household who contributes financially.

To get your FSA ID, you’ll need your date of birth and legal name. Ideally, you should also enter your social security ID. You can still create an FSA ID if you don’t have one, but you’ll need to go through a series of verification questions.

The Social Security Administration will then verify your information, so it will take 1-3 days before you receive your FSA ID.

The FSA isn’t to be confused with a save key, which is a temporary password you can use to go back and forth on the FAFSA form with a parent. It’s okay to share a save key with other people involved in your application, but you shouldn’t share your FSA key with anyone — even parents.

Enter student and parent demographics 

First, the FAFSA application will prompt you to enter your demographic information, such as name, date of birth, marital status, and legal residence.

If you’ve made a FAFSA application in a previous year, you can save time by opting to renew your FAFSA form. This will fill out your demographic information automatically.

Also, most of your personal information will appear once you have your FSA ID. However, it’s important to read through each field carefully to ensure you don’t miss anything.

Depending on your situation, you may need to provide information about one or both of your parents. If your parents don’t live together and aren’t married, you only need to provide information about the parent you lived with the most. 

Or, if you split time equally between both parents, provide information about the parent who provided the most support over the past 12 months. These guidelines can get quite technical, so check the Student Aid guide if you have any doubts.

Add your schools

You need to add at least one school on your FAFSA application form. This ensures the school receives your information and considers whether to give you aid. You don’t need to have been accepted into the institution (or even to have applied at all) to add them to your application.

Since you can include up to 20 schools, it makes sense to add any schools you’re considering — just in case. If your application to a school is unsuccessful or you decide not to go, the school will simply disregard your application. No big deal.

Even after submitting, you can continue to add or remove colleges. Also, don’t worry — schools cannot see which other schools you have applied to, so your choices won’t affect your application.

Choose your dependency status

Parents play a major role in determining your aid eligibility since FAFSA considers parents to support their children financially.

There are exceptions. You can declare yourself an independent student instead if you meet certain criteria, in which case you can skip the parents section in the application form. However, note that this definition of independence differs from that of the IRS. Even if you file your taxes and live alone, you could still be considered a dependent for your FAFSA application.

A parent must fill in the application by default for students under the age of 24 unless the student is one of the following:

  • Member of armed forces
  • Veteran
  • Orphan
  • Emancipated
  • In court-ordered legal guardianship
  • Homeless youth or at risk of being homeless
  • Parent providing more than half of financial support for dependent
  • Recipient of foster care 
  • Ward of the court after the age of 13

Also, graduate and professional students are considered independent by default. 

Add financial information

Providing your financial information is one of the most critical aspects of the FAFSA application. 

For the smoothest experience, use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which takes information directly from your IRS tax account. To be eligible, you must have filed a federal income tax return for the relevant year and have a valid social security number.

All you need to do is select the option to proceed to the IRS, enter the information from your federal income tax return and agree to transfer your tax information to FAFSA.

However, just because you use the IRS DRT, it doesn’t mean that it fills out everything for you. Review everything manually—there are some fields you need to handle yourself, such as payments to tax-deferred pension and retirement savings plans.

Check for errors

Once you’ve filled in all the fields on your FAFSA application, you might think it’s time to click “submit.” But not so fast! Failing to check your application can result in you missing fields or making errors, which will cause you a headache further down the line.

Some mistakes to look out for include:

  • Spelling errors and typos for your personal information
  • Failing to verify specific definitions (e.g., who counts as your “parent”)
  • Mix-ups between the FSA IDs of parents and children 
  • Miscalculating investments (e.g., retirement accounts aren’t included)


Once you’ve double-checked and triple-checked your application is correct, you can finally submit your application. 

To do this, you’ll need to sign your application, and the easiest option is to use your FSA ID. Parents also need to sign for dependent students. 

The other option is to mail in a signature page, which is a longer process.

When you submit successfully, you’ll see a confirmation page with your confirmation number, and you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) in 7-10 business days. You may then hear from the schools you applied to.

Remember that you can continue to edit your application even after submitting it (until the deadline passes).

How special circumstances may impact financial aid eligibility 

As if it wasn’t stressful enough to ensure you fill in your FAFSA application correctly, sometimes life can throw an extra spanner in the works by changing our circumstances.

You might write one income when you file your application, but then your parents lose their job (or get a better one). What impact does that have on your FAFSA application and student aid eligibility? 

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. StudentAid recommends contacting the financial aid office of each school you apply to and asking them to update your information. The exact process may vary between schools. 

For instance, the University of Southern California says that you can make an appeal, but allocation will depend on the availability of funds and the timeliness of the original application.  

FAFSA changes 2024

It’s important to note that FAFSA has undergone some significant changes for the 2024-2025 academic year onward. Therefore, when researching how the application works, it’s essential to ensure that the information you’re reading is current. 

But don’t fear. The changes were actually introduced to simplify the process.

One major difference is that there are fewer questions — whereas there were previously 118 questions in the FAFSA application, there are now just 36 questions (for most students). The application is now said to take just 10 minutes.

There’s also a separate application for students and parents now. Whereas in the past, parents saw questions related to students and vice versa, applicants now select their role and only view the questions relevant to them. This is why parents and students need to log in separately to fill in their parts.

Further changes include:

  • You can list up to 20 schools and not 10
  • Less tax information is required (the Department of Education retrieves it directly from the IRS)
  • No need to share your type of student housing
  • Family members in college are irrelevant
  • Families with farms or small businesses must report their net worth

Finance your future

You can’t go too far wrong with your FAFSA application if you’re aware of the deadlines, prepare everything for your application sufficiently in advance, fill it out carefully according to the guidelines, and check it thoroughly before submitting.

But managing your finances for college doesn’t start and end with your FAFSA application. There are countless other aspects to consider, from everyday budgeting to choosing your student accommodation. We cover all this and more at Frugal Student, so stay tuned for more tips!

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