FAFSA Application Ultimate Guide 2023: How to Apply, Steps, Tips, FAQ

FAFSA Application Ultimate Guide 2023: How to Apply, Steps, Tips, FAQ

Published July 26, 2023

In this comprehensive guide for the 2023-24 FAFSA application, we provide the essential information you need to successfully apply for financial aid. From step-by-step instructions and valuable tips to a video tutorial, we’ve got you covered. Get ready to navigate the FAFSA process and maximize your chances of making college more affordable.

Table of Contents

What Is FAFSA?

FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a crucial form for students seeking financial assistance for college. It gathers information about the student’s and family’s financial situation to determine eligibility for grants, scholarships, and loans. FAFSA opens doors to funding opportunities that can make higher education more affordable.

When students submit the completed application, they’ll learn not only if they qualify for aid but also the types of aid and the portion their family will be responsible for.

Parents are responsible for the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). As of July 2023, this amount is now called the Student Aid Index (SAI.)

You need to submit the FAFSA to be eligible for the following:

  • Federal grants (e.g., the Pell Grant)
  • Federal work-study programs
  • Federal student loans
  • State scholarships
  • Need-based aid and some merit scholarships from colleges and universities

Not all colleges base their scholarships on financial need or ability to pay. Still, they may require you to fill out the FAFSA before awarding merit, athletic, or other talent-based scholarships. Overall, it’s best to ask each prospective college if you should submit the FAFSA for non-need-based scholarships.

Who Should Apply for FAFSA?

All college applicants should submit the FAFSA, even if their families have million-dollar incomes. Why? FAFSA is the gateway to federal student and parent loans. Second, the calculation for need-based aid may surprise you. Third, FAFSA is used for some state and college scholarships and work-study programs.

“I truly believe everyone should file the FAFSA,” says college planning specialist Luanne Lee. “I’ve had clients that are seven-figure income earners, and we’ve filed the FAFSA for them. You just never know what’s going to happen.” 

Bottom line: Fill out the FAFSA even if you think you won’t qualify for need-based aid. Even if you think you can cover every penny on your own, having all the options available can’t hurt. And you don’t have to accept any aid you qualify for. It’s your choice.

What happens if you are no longer married to your child’s other parent? The FAFSA process can be a little complicated for divorced parents. There’s a change in the upcoming FAFSA cycle year due to the FAFSA Simplification Act.  Under the new rules, where the student lives doesn’t determine who should fill out the FAFSA. The parent responsible for filling out the FAFSA is whoever provides more financial support to the child.

FAFSA Deadlines

When should you apply for FAFSA? Each college determines its financial aid deadlines. On the federal level, FAFSA applications will open in December 2023 instead of the usual Oct. 1 due to the recent changes. The window closes June 30, 2024. Then, for 2024-25, the opening date will revert to Oct. 1.

It’s generally best to turn in the FAFSA as soon as possible; those who file earlier may receive more grant money than those who apply toward the end. Additionally, many states and colleges have scholarship deadlines far earlier than June of the school year in question.

For example, you can submit early decision (ED) college applications as early as October 1, but for fall 2023, the FAFSA won’t be available because of the upcoming changes. When the FAFSA is available, filling it out as soon as possible after the opening date will put you in the best position for scholarships for those early applications. After this application cycle, FAFSA will revert to opening by October 1 again. That would happen on October 1, 2024.

Many state grants rely on FAFSA.  You’ll want to be one of the first to apply for first-come, first-served money. Getting the FAFSA filled out right away is the best bet for accessing the most funds.

What happens if you miss the deadline? There’s not much you can do. So make sure to meet the deadline.


How Does FAFSA Work?

The FAFSA form collects information about a student’s financial background and family situation to determine financial aid eligibility. Students and their families must input some information manually, but everyone’s tax data will be pulled automatically now, unlike in previous years. That’s a major change for this application cycle.

The FAFSA is technically the student’s application, but parents may wonder whether they or their child should complete it. According to the Federal Student Aid Office, a parent must include their own financial information and sign the form if their child is considered a dependent. 

In reality, this means that many parents fill out the FAFSA for their children. However, the student will still need to sign the form. Both parent and child will each need a unique Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID) to sign in to the online portal, access the FAFSA, fill it out, and e-sign it.

Another option is for students to declare themselves independent, which is very difficult. (Read more about independent student status here.)

What Is a FAFSA ID?

The first step in filling out the FAFSA is obtaining an FSA ID, also called a FAFSA ID. Each parent will need to apply for one for themselves, and your child will need to apply for their own. You should not create an FSA ID and password for someone else. 


What Are the Changes to the FAFSA for 2023-24?

One big change is the shorter form. The new FAFSA has only 36 questions, rather than the previous 130-plus. Also, the application becomes available later than in previous years – likely sometime in December 2023. And keep in mind that Student Aid Index (SAI) replaces Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

Other changes include:

  • The family’s contribution will no longer be divided by the number of students they have in college. Instead, the new SAI will represent what each of your students can pay. Siblings will no longer get a financial advantage for being in school at the same time.
  • For divorced parents, the parent who provides the most financial support has to file the FAFSA with their income and assets. In most cases, this makes the SAI much higher than if the custodial parent (who may have made much less) filed and reported – like they would have with previous years’ FAFSAs. It also includes spousal income for the remarried parent who makes the most.
  • The government will automatically collect your tax return data from the IRS for FAFSA purposes. This is a big change for this year. Previously, parents had the option to import their tax data, but it didn’t happen automatically.

Steps to Fill Out the FAFSA

Filling out the FAFSA takes time and focus. Don’t try to do it when you’re busy with something else. Here are the steps you’ll go through when completing the FAFSA application.

Be aware of common mistakes

Things that commonly cause delays in the FAFSA processing include:

  • Mixing up parent and student financial information
  • Sharing more information than what’s asked for on the application
  • Using nicknames for your child that don’t match their Social Security Number
  •  Making careless errors, like typing in the wrong number, logging in as your student, or not hitting submit when you finish

Doing the FAFSA correctly the first time will save you headaches later.

Gather your information

Find your information and documents before starting the form. For a parent, that includes: 

  • The Federal School Code for each school your student will apply to
  • Your child’s personal information: Social Security number (or Alien Registration number) and driver’s license number (if applicable)
  • Your personal information: Social Security number (and your spouse’s SSN, if applicable)
  • Your child’s financial information: tax returns/W2s, details of untaxed income, savings accounts, and other assets
  • Your financial information (and your spouse’s, if applicable): tax returns/income documents, records of retirement plan withdrawals or other untaxed income, financial assets, investment accounts, and savings accounts

The FAFSA determines how much financial aid the student may be eligible for the upcoming school year, but it uses tax information for the year prior to when you fill it out. In FAFSA circles, it’s called “prior prior.” That means you’ll use your 2022 tax forms for the FAFSA in 2023 or 2024 for the 2024-2025 school year. (That information will automatically import starting in December 2023.)

Create a FAFSA ID

You’ll need to create an FSA ID to log in to the FAFSA website online. It also serves are your signature. Creating the ID before filling out the form can help you avoid any delays later, especially when you’re ready to submit.

To do so, go to the FAFSA homepage.

Both you and your student will need separate IDs if your student is considered a dependent. Be sure to have your Social Security numbers on hand.

From studentaid.gov: “A Social Security number, email address, and mobile phone number can only be associated with one FSA ID. If you share an email address with someone else, then only one of you will be able to use that email address to create an FSA ID.”

Make sure to keep a record of your FSA ID (it contains your username and password).

You’ll also need to create answers to login challenge questions such as “What is your mother’s maiden name?” or “What was the name of your junior high school?” Make sure you pick questions that both you and your child can answer.

Fill out the application

Now that you’re ready to fill out the FAFSA with your student, take your time and read every instruction they provide on the website. The FAFSA application process will begin by asking if you’re a new or returning user. Then you’ll choose your semester of application and provide your Social Security number. You must accept the disclaimer and create a “save key” number for future access.

We can’t emphasize this point enough: The save key is essential. The save key is different from your FSA ID. It allows you to pause your work and continue again when you’re ready. If you get up to do something, save and exit. Use this function, and you’ll reduce a lot of frustration.

Student Information

The student logs in under their own FSA ID for this part. The first section of the FAFSA covers the student’s details: personal information and dependency status. Your student will mark whether they are a dependent or independent student to apply for federal student aid. If they are an independent student, they must report parent information and their own. (Becoming an independent student is a difficult process.)

If your student is male, they must complete their Selective Service registration when they turn 18. However, they no longer need to register for the Selective Service to submit the FAFSA. If your son hasn’t yet registered for the Selective Service, they may still do so on the FAFSA. 

In addition, while FAFSA used to require Selective Service registration to be eligible for aid,  this changed for the 2021-22 award year. The rule ended as a part of the FAFSA Simplification Act of 2020.

Parent Financial Information

The parent logs in under their own FSA ID for this section. You’ll enter your information as the parent: your personal details, financial information, and tax forms. One change for the upcoming application cycle in December is that the government will automatically import your tax return data. 

Student Financial Information

This section is for your child’s financial information. The financial records required for the FAFSA are those from two years prior, so chances are your child won’t have much to report. However, you shouldn’t just skip this section; ensure you fill in all the information as indicated.

Listing Colleges

From studentaid.gov: “While completing the FAFSA form, you must list at least one school to receive your information. The schools you list will use your FAFSA information to determine the types and amounts of aid you may receive. Use the Federal School Code Search to find the colleges you’re interested in including on your FAFSA form. Note: Schools will not be able to see which other schools you listed on your FAFSA form.”

Sign the application

The final step requires you and your student to sign the document (either with your FSA ID or digital signature) to proceed to the confirmation page. You’ll then get a confirmation page.

Adding Schools to FAFSA

The student should include at least one school with their FAFSA submission, but their work here is not done. Other colleges won’t know about the student’s aid eligibility unless they receive a Student Aid Report Report (SAR). To initiate this, the student should add up to 10 schools to the FAFSA.  (Starting with the FAFSA that opens on December 1, 2023, students can add up to 20 schools rather than the 10 they are currently allowed.)

Which colleges should they choose at this point? Choose ones they have at least some interest in attending. 

Also, if they live in one of a few select states, they must put an in-state school on the list to be considered for state-based aid. The StudentAid.gov website lists the details for each state for you to see what’s required.

Your student can pick up to 10 schools on the application. They’ll use a Federal School Code for each college they want to share their FAFSA results. If they’ve already used the government’s search tool to find the Federal School Codes for the colleges they’re applying to, they can enter them directly. Otherwise, they can use the search tool in the online FAFSA application.

If a student lists multiple schools on the FAFSA, their order might matter for state aid. So prioritize them as best you can. Don’t overthink this; this won’t affect federal aid, just state aid.

What if a student wants to add more than ten colleges to the FAFSA? The online form is limited to 10 schools; adding more codes will replace previously entered codes. However, once a student receives their Student Aid Report (SAR) back from the government, they can provide the information to more colleges in one of three ways:

  • Log in to the FAFSA account and find the option for Make FAFSA Corrections. Go into the form and replace the school codes from the initial application with codes for the additional schools. Then submit the corrections. (The schools on the original application will have received your child’s SAR already.)
  • With a paper SAR, replace the colleges listed on it with the new ones, and then mail the paper back to the Federal Student Aid Office. (With this method, you can add only four colleges at a time.)
  • Ask the Federal Student Aid Information Center over the phone to add the new colleges. When your child calls, they must provide the Data Release Number (DRN) listed on their SAR to the customer service representative.

There isn’t a limit to the number of colleges that can receive your child’s SAR.

FAFSA for Divorced Parents

The process gets a bit complicated for divorced parents. The FAFSA Simplification Act helps in some ways, such as fewer questions to answer for all parents. However, other things are murkier, such as which parent should complete the form. 

With the new rules taking effect for the upcoming cycle, the FAFSA filing requirement falls upon the parent who offers the highest financial support. Consequently, this results in a higher expected family contribution (now called Student Aid Index) than most previous scenarios. That’s because the custodial parent, who may have earned significantly less, used to be the parent to file and report their income and assets on the FAFSA. Additionally, if the parent who contributes the most has remarried, the FAFSA includes the income and assets of the step-parent.


How Long Does It Take to Hear Back From FAFSA?

A student should get an email notification within a few minutes that they successfully submitted their application. They should get their Student Aid Report within two weeks, sometimes a few days. If they mailed a paper copy of the FAFSA, the SAR will arrive by mail, which takes longer.

Your Student Aid Report (SAR)

The Student Aid Report summarizes your FAFSA information and provides your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), now called Student Aid Index (SAI). It shows the government’s view of your financial situation and ability to pay for college. The report goes to students and their chosen schools. 

Your FAFSA answers and SAI will help to determine a few types of financial aid:

  • The federal government (U.S. Department of Education) uses this data to determine Pell Grant eligibility.
  • States use the information to determine some state aid, such as for in-state residents. 
  • Colleges use the data to assess how much institutional aid a student can receive.

The SAR will directly say whether you’re eligible for a Pell Grant but not college aid. That comes from the colleges.

Your Student Aid Report will also have a DRN, a unique four-digit number the student must provide if they contact the financial aid office’s customer service.


Do You Have to Fill Out FAFSA Every Year?

Yes. Students should fill out a FAFSA form each year they’re in college. It ensures their consideration for financial aid (loans and scholarships). It also makes them eligible for certain college-based aid, like special department or athletic scholarships, and work-study.

The government calculates eligibility for financial aid one year at a time. Fortunately, renewing the FAFSA is less time-consuming than filling out the initial application. 

Use College Insights to Find Financial Aid

Road2College offers a college search and comparison tool called College Insights. Try it for free to see which colleges provide the most financial aid for your situation. We offer a free version to get started and a premium version to go deeper. 

College Insights has data on which colleges require only the FAFSA and which colleges require the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. This information can be helpful for divorced families and families with low income but high retirement assets (since the FAFSA does not include assets in qualified retirement accounts). College Insights users can identify schools that only require FAFSA. Depending on your financial situation, some families should consider having their student apply to at least one or more of these schools.


My Student Hasn’t Made Final Decisions on Where to Apply. Can I Still Fill Out FAFSA?

Your student may not have applied to schools yet, but they should send their FAFSA information to any school they are considering. If you wait until your student has finalized their list, you may miss out on early-round financial aid at the schools they are certain they want to apply to.

The school won’t send you a financial aid offer unless your student is accepted, so don’t be shy. Get your financial information in as soon as you can.

Know if your state requires the schools to be listed in a particular order to get state financial aid. These kinds of details can cost you a lot of money if you miss them!

My Income Is So Different From the Taxes I’m Using for FAFSA. What Can I Do?

Contact the school to explain your special circumstances. Sometimes the prior-year tax return is not an accurate representation of your finances. If so, you’ll still fill out the FAFSA according to the directions.

However, you can then contact the schools your student focuses on and let them know your special circumstances. They may be able to adjust their financial aid award before they send it out.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Student Aid Report (SAR)?

Within two weeks of filing a FAFSA online, your student will receive an email with a link to the Student Aid Report. If they mailed a paper copy of the FAFSA, the SAR would arrive in the mail, which may take longer.

How Will We Know If My Student Is Eligible for Aid?

The SAR directly tells you if your student is eligible for government aid but not college-based aid. 

Each college or university will send them a financial aid award letter letting them know what aid they are offering to fill the gap between your EFC and your need. It will also detail any merit aid your student has won from the school.

What Can We Do if The Aid Award Isn’t Enough?

Families often find that the aid doesn’t meet their full needs. Even if you do have a school meet your student’s full need, you might find that your EFC is more than you have saved.

If you feel that your student deserves a better award, they may want to appeal the financial aid award. Beyond an appeal, many families turn to private student loans or private parent loans. When you compare lenders, look for specific features. These include various repayment terms, pre-qualification availability, the option to remove a cosigner from a private student loan, a choice of loan duration, and more.

When Should I Start Applying for Financial Aid?

Applying for the FAFSA should begin as soon as the application has opened for the year (around December 2023). Other types of financial aid, such as outside scholarships and grants, can be applied for any time of year that they are available.

Is the FAFSA Form Free?

Yes, the FAFSA is always free. If you fill out the form online, you won’t even have to buy a postage stamp.

Is FAFSA Still Accepting Applications for the 2023-24 School Year?

Yes. The deadline for the 2023-2024 year is June 30, 2024.


Use College Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

Merit Scholarships Guide: Factors, Tips, Full List and Search Tool

The Price You Pay for College: Why It’s So Difficult to Predict Merit Scholarships

FAFSA Independent Student Guide: Challenges, Benefits, Criteria, How to Decide and How to File




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