how to maximize your financial aid

What is the FAFSA? 

FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is, as its name suggests, a free form that determines how much federal financial aid you are eligible for. It pulls information from students’ and their immediate family’s tax returns to calculate estimated financial need. The FAFSA has a reputation for being really difficult and time-consuming to fill out. While that was the case several years ago, it’s so much easier now than it used to be!

No matter what, everyone should complete their FAFSA. Even if it turns out you don’t qualify for any federal financial aid, you won’t know for sure until you’ve filled it out. Every dollar helps when you’re trying to minimize your student debt, so it never hurts to go ahead and fill it out.

How to complete the FAFSA

You can start the process of filling it out here: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa. Just click the “Start Here” button and follow the instructions from there. If there are any parts you’re confused about, the website also has lots of questions already answered on the site! 

You must have filed your tax form in order to complete the FAFSA, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be your most recent tax information. The FAFSA for each year uses the tax form that was submitted two years prior. For example, let’s say you’re filling out the FAFSA for the 2019-2020 school year. You would need to use the information from your 2017 tax return to fill out your FAFSA.  

FAFSA uses a program called IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which is what makes completing the form so easy. Basically, when FAFSA uses this program, it is able to pull your existing financial data into the form so you won’t have to re-enter everything.  

What happens when you’re finished?

Once you submit your FAFSA, you’ll receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). At the very top of your SAR you’ll see a line labeled EFC. That stands for your Expected Family Contribution score, which is the metric that your college or university will use to determine how much financial aid you’ll get. Your EFC score is an estimate of how much your family can afford to pay out of pocket each year. 

The score is calculated based on your household income, liabilities, and how much is owned in assets. The calculation is different for each family situation, so it’s hard to estimate what your EFC score will be without completing the entire form. In general, a lower household income means you’ll have a lower EFC score, and therefore be expected to pay less out of pocket for college.  

Your EFC score is usually an accurate estimate, but sometimes people’s financial situations change drastically from one year to the next. If this might apply to you, make sure you reach out to your college’s financial aid office to let them know. Each school will have a different way to address this. 

A few reminders about federal financial aid: 

  1. Only US citizens and eligible legal residents qualify for federal financial aid. That means DACA students are unfortunately NOT eligible for federal aid. It is generally recommended that you still complete the FAFSA so your college can have your estimated need documented. 

  1. If your parents are unwilling or unable to file the information required on the FAFSA, you may have trouble qualifying for financial aid. If you are in this situation, talk to the financial aid officer at your college immediately – they should be able to guide you through your next steps. (There is also more information HERE and HERE on the FAFSA website.) If you do not qualify as an independent student, you will likely be ineligible for federal grants and some other forms of federal aid. 

  1. You must resubmit your FAFSA each year in order to stay eligible! Pay close attention to deadlines for the FAFSA and for your university to stay on top of when you need to file for aid. 


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