The 2021-2022 FAFSA is available for you to start filling out as soon as October 1, 2021. And you’ll want to get on that ASAP! Filling out the FAFSA early is one of the best ways to secure as much financial aid as you can to help pay for college. 

In this guide, we’ll be showing you how to put together a fool-proof application as well as answering common questions, like: 

  • When is the FAFSA deadline? 
  • Who is eligible for FAFSA? 
  • What documents do you need for the FAFSA? 
  • Can you get financial aid if your parents make a lot of money? 
  • Can financial aid cover full tuition? 

By applying what you learn here, you’ll be on your way to receiving the best financial aid package! To begin, let’s start with a quick overview of what FAFSA is and who’s eligible to apply.

So, What is FAFSA?

If you’re preparing to go to college—whether for the first time or as a returning student—chances are that you’ve heard the term “FAFSA” kicked around. Many students have heard of FAFSA but have questions about it.

FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid” and is an application to receive money to pay for college from the United States Government, specifically from the U.S. Department of Education

The Very Short Version of the FAFSA Process

We’ll get into the nitty gritty details of exactly how to file a FAFSA shortly, but basically, you’ll fill out an application including information about your and your parents’ financial situation. Then, you’ll receive an EFC from the Department of Education.

EFC stands for “Expected Family Contribution,” in other words, what your family can afford to pay in college tuition for the upcoming school year. The lower your EFC, the more aid you’re eligible for.

And just a word to the wise: you’ll have to re-apply each year for the following school year. This means that you won’t necessarily be awarded the same amount every year of your college education. Because the amount of income you and your family earn every year can change, so can your financial aid package. 

Types of Federal Financial Aid

There are basically three types of federal student aid that are awarded through filling out the FAFSA: grants, loans, and work-study funds.

  1. Grants are allotments of money that you do not have to pay back, and they’re typically based on financial need.
  2. Loans are sums of money that are loaned to you by the government and that will need to be paid back, with interest, over a period of time.
  3. Work-study programs provide part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students to help them earn money while in college.

FAFSA Eligibility

The basic eligibility requirements for federal student aid state that you must:

  • Demonstrate financial need (for most programs);
  • Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen;
  • Have a valid Social Security number (with the exception of students from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, or the Republic of Palau);
  • Be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program;
  • Be enrolled at least half-time to be eligible for Direct Loan Program funds;
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress in college or career school;
  • Sign the certification statement on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid(FAFSA®) form stating that
    • you are not in default on a federal student loan,
    • you do not owe money on a federal student grant, and
    • you will use federal student aid only for educational purposes; and
  • Show you’re qualified to obtain a college or career school education by
    • having a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate;
    • completing a high school education in a homeschool setting approved under state law (or—if state law does not require a homeschooled student to obtain a completion credential—completing a high school education in a homeschool setting that qualifies as an exemption from compulsory attendance requirements under state law); or enrolling in an eligible career pathway program and meeting one of the “ability-to-benefit” alternatives

When is FAFSA Due? 

Your FAFSA must be filed by 11:59pm (Central) on June 30, 2022 (for the 2022-2023 school year). 

Now, remember the application opens on October 1, 2021. So, yes, this is a long window of time. But don’t wait until the FAFSA deadline!

To maximize your chances of securing enough financial aid, you’ll want to apply as soon as possible. A lot of federal aid is “first come, first served.”

Your FAFSA is also used to calculate how much money you’re eligible for from your state of residence. And each state has its own deadline. So, be sure to look up your state’s FAFSA deadline.

Additionally, every college you’re applying to has its own financial aid deadline, so you’ll want to check with each one individually.

How to Fill Out the FAFSA: Step-by-Step 

Step 1 – Determine Your Dependency Status

Determining whether or not you are a dependent or independent applicant is actually something you’ll do during the process of answering the FAFSA questions. So, if you don’t know off the top of your head, that’s okay! 

But the reason we suggest doing this first is so that you’ll be better able to gather the necessary information beforehand (for example, your parents’ tax information), making the process much easier!

Here’s the only difference between a dependent student and an independent student as it relates to the FAFSA: if you’re a dependent student, you’ll need to provide your parents’ financial information. If you’re an independent student, you won’t. 

So, are you an independent or dependent applicant? This is a great overview from the Federal Government on dependency status, but here’s the gist of what you need to know:

According to the Federal Government, an independent student is at least one of the following: “24 years old, married, a graduate or professional student, a veteran, a member of the armed forces, an orphan, a ward of the court, someone with legal dependents other than a spouse, an emancipated minor or someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.”

If you are none of the above, then you are a dependent applicant.

Keep in mind that if you are technically a dependent student but your parents are unwilling to complete a FAFSA, you unfortunately cannot be considered an independent student. In some rare instances, you may be eligible for a dependency override, such as in the case of abuse, neglect, or incarceration. 

Lastly, even if you are a dependent, note that you must claim any income you gained as well, including income from contests, gifts, etc.

Step 2 – Create an FSA ID

In order to complete the FAFSA, you’ll have to create an FSA ID, which allows you to access the application online and provide your electronic signature. 

Your FSA is uniquely yours. By law, you can’t create an FSA for someone else or have someone create one for you. This ID is entirely confidential.

If you are a dependent, which requires your parents’ financial information, then your parent(s) will need their own FSA ID.

Some of the most common FAFSA errors occur when students and parents mix up their FSA IDs!

Step 3 – Gather All Necessary Personal Information

Answering the FAFSA questions will be much more of a breeze if you gathered all of your personal information, and your parents’ personal information, before you start.

As far as tax information, you and/or your parents can use this super handy IRS retrieval tool to locate your tax information.

(Note that you’ll see that you need some documents from 2019. This is because FAFSA now takes financial information from the year before last year. So all financial information you gather will be for 2019).

If you’re a dependent student and a U.S citizen you’ll need your:

  • Social Security card
  • Driver’s license (if you have one)
  • W-2 forms (2019)
  • Federal income tax return (2019)
  • Untaxed income records (2019)
  • Current bank statements
  • Parents’ federal income tax return
  • Parents’ 2019 W-2 forms
  • Parents’ bank statements
  • Parents’ untaxed income records
  • Parents’ current business and investment records

If you’re a dependent student and not a U.S citizen:

  • You will submit all of the above, except a Social Security card. 

If you’re an independent student and a U.S citizen you’ll need your:

  • Social Security card
  • Driver’s license (if you have one)
  • W-2 forms (2019)
  • Federal income tax return (2019)
  • Untaxed income records (2019)
  • Your current bank statements

If you’re an independent student and not a U.S citizen:

  • You will submit all of the above, except a Social Security card

Step 4 – Determine What Parental Information You’ll Need

The above list of necessary FAFSA information is a guideline, but as we all know, everyone’s family situation is different. If you’re a dependent student, the information you need to include will vary depending on your parental dynamics. 

For example, what if your parents are divorced? Do you need to provide information for both parents?

Here’s a great infographic from the office of Federal Student Aid illustrating which parents’ information you’ll need for FAFSA based on your unique circumstances:

who is my parent on the FAFSA infographic

And here’s a quick breakdown of the infographic:

If your legal parents are unmarried, separated, or divorced, and do not live together… 

Provide the above-listed information for the parent you have resided with most during the last 12 months. If you have not lived with one parent more than another, provide information for the parent who has provided more financial support over the last 12 months. 

Note: if the parent you do not live with most paid alimony during 2018, this must be entered as income on your FAFSA.

If your legal parents are unmarried and currently living together…

Provide information for both of your parents. 

If your parents are married… 

Provide information for both of your parents. 

If your parent is remarried after being widowed or divorced… 

Provide information for your parent and step-parent.

If your parent is widowed… 

Provide your living parent’s information.

Finally, it’s worth noting that a legal parent, for the sake of FAFSA, refers to:

  • Your legal biological or adoptive parent 
  • A legal guardian that has been determined by the state and is reflected on your birth certificate

Unfortunately, at this time, foster parents, grandparents, older siblings, widowed step-parents, or aunts/uncles are not considered parents unless they have legally adopted you.

Step 5 – Decide Which Schools Will Receive Your FAFSA

You will need to submit a FAFSA for every school to which you are applying. One of the last questions on the FAFSA asks you to enter 6-digit codes for each college you’re applying to. You can find lists of 6-digit codes at or by calling 1-800-433-3243. If for some reason you can’t find a particular school’s code, you may enter the address and contact information for the school manually.

Step 6 – Answer All of the FAFSA Questions

Once you’ve assembled all of the necessary information (really the hardest part), you’ll enter this information by answering a series of questions on the FAFSA application form. 

There are 100+ questions broken down into several categories:

  • Student’s personal information 
  • Student’s financial information 
  • Student’s status (which helps you determine if you need to enter parent information, if you haven’t figured that out beforehand)
  • Parents’ information 
  • Student’s household information
  • Student’s signature, date, and send off 

If you have all of the necessary information handy, answering the FAFSA questions shouldn’t be too hard. If you’re confused about what any of the questions are asking, however, we love this overview of FAFSA questions that offers clarification for each question, as well as who to contact directly for more help.

 Step 7 – Receive Your SAR and EFC

After you file your FAFSA you will receive your SAR report, which stands for “Student Aid Report.” Your SAR will come in the mail within 10 days or by email within 5 days if you provided an email address.

Your SAR will reflect all of the information you provided as well as your EFC (your “expected family contribution,” as discussed prior). 

You’ll also be notified if you have any missing information (in which case you will not receive an EFC) and provided directions for changing any information as needed.

Here’s everything you need to know about your SAR, but note that it will include:

  • A DRN, or “Data Release Number” which can be used later if you want to grant your college permission to change any information on your FAFSA
  • (Possibly) a note that you have been selected for verification. If you receive one, don’t panic! This doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. You can read more about the steps to take for verification here.

Note that your SAR will not contain the amount of federal student aid you’re eligible for; that information will come directly from each college you’re accepted to in the form of financial aid award letters.

Step 8 – Make Any Changes Necessary

Once you receive your SAR report, if the information is not correct, you can simply sign back into your FAFSA account (remember that FSA ID!) and select “Make FAFSA Corrections.”  

You can also make more substantial changes, for instance, if your financial situation has significantly changed. Here’s more information on exactly how to make changes to your FAFSA after it’s filed.

Step 9 – Receive and Interpret Your Financial Award Letters

When you get accepted to a college (yay!) you’ll also receive a financial aid award letter detailing your financial aid package, which is determined in large part by your FAFSA. 

Essentially, your financial aid package is the total amount of money a school is willing to provide you, including federal aid and the school’s own financial aid (which can vary greatly school to school). 

In terms of the federal aid you receive, there are 3 categories you may see reflected in your letter, which we touched on earlier:


Here’s an overview of federal grants, but one of the most common types is the need-based Federal Pell Grant, designed for lower income undergraduate students. Pell grants range from about $500 to $5,500 depending on need. 

There are also grants available for students whose parents have served in the military and for students who are taking courses to become teachers.

Grants do not need to be repaid. 


Here’s an overview of federal loans. The U.S Department of Education uses a system called the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, under which there are 4 types of loans:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans for undergraduate students in financial need.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans for undergraduate, graduate, or career college students that are not based on financial need.
  • Direct PLUS Loans for graduate or professional students and for parents of dependent undergrads to help pay for educational expenses not covered by other types of financial aid. These loans are contingent upon a credit check and are not need-based.
  • Direct Consolidation Loans which allow you to combine all of your federal loans into one single loan

 Loans do have to be repaid over a specified period of time with interest paid.

Work Study

Here’s an overview of work study funding, which essentially means that your school provides you a part-time job to help pay for school. 

Work-study jobs pay at least minimum wage, and vary in the total amount paid based on whether you’re an undergraduate or graduate student.

How to Understand Your Financial Aid Award Letter

Overall, financial aid award letters can be a little tricky to understand, so we recommend actually talking to a financial aid advisor at each college you’re applying to. That way you can be absolutely sure how much money you’re receiving, what you’ll be responsible for paying back, and so on. 

Generally, though, you’ll want to ask yourself the following questions while reading your financial aid award letter

  • Does your financial aid package cover the full cost of attendance with grants, work study, and scholarships? If not, you’ll need to cover the remaining costs, look for additional scholarships, or apply for student loans. 
  • What isn’t covered by financial aid? For example, will you receive any money to go towards housing or books? If not, you’ll need to factor in those extra costs on your own to decide if attending that college is still affordable with only financial aid.
  • Does your financial aid package reflect you and your family’s current financial status? If not, you may want to appeal your financial aid package.

Step 10 – Appeal Your Financial Aid Award (If Necessary) 

If you did not receive enough financial aid to afford the total cost of a particular college, the first thing you should do is contact the financial aid office. You always have the option of appealing for more money, which is something many students don’t know. However, every school has a different policy for appealing for more financial assistance, and you will want to follow the protocol exactly. 

It can be very tricky to receive more financial aid, but it’s not impossible. You may be asked by a financial aid advisor to write a letter of appeal explaining why you need more money. A very good reason to write an appeal letter is if a family or life circumstance has changed since you filed your FAFSA. 

For example, if you’ve had a death in your immediate family or one of your parent’s recently lost their job, you may be a strong candidate to receive more aid.

Here’s a great video from The University Network that goes into how to write a financial aid appeal letter:


Here’s a collection of FAFSA FAQs for your reference, but the following are some of the most common questions students have about the FAFSA and federal financial aid.

If FAFSA free?

It sure is (it’s not just a clever name). You don’t have to pay for FAFSA. So, there should be no explicit or hidden fees to file a FAFSA. If for some reason you are asked to provide payment to file, you are not using a legitimate FAFSA application!

Is FAFSA required to go to college?

No. You can go to college without filling out the FAFSA. But if you’re looking for financial aid of any variety, you’ll want to fill one out. Federal, state, and campus-based financial aid award packages are generated using FAFSA. So, if you need money for college, FAFSA is where to start!

Is FAFSA worth filling out if your parents make a lot of money?

Yes, yes, 1000 times yes! There is no limit on income for the FAFSA. And many students miss out on the FAFSA because they assume they’re not eligible for financial aid or they’re intimidated by the lengthy application process. But the federal government has billions of dollars to give in student aid—don’t leave your share on the table!

How do I accept financial aid?

Here are the official instructions for accepting your financial aid. Basically, you’ll have to inform your college directly about which aid you want to accept. Each school has its own process, so read your reward letter carefully. For loans, you will be asked to sign a promissory note, promising to repay your loans. 

Do I have to accept all of my financial aid?

Nope! Only accept what you need. A good rule of thumb when it comes to accepting financial aid is to start by accepting the money that you don’t need to pay back. Then you can decide how much, if any, of the loans you will need to accept to cover the cost of school.

How do I receive my financial aid?

Okay, so you’ve accepted your financial aid. Now, how do you actually get the money? Each college may have a separate protocol for how the money is actually disbursed, here’s a solid overview about receiving your federal aid. Generally, the money you receive covers the whole academic year and is distributed in two chunks from the federal government through your college and into a college account that you can then use to pay for courses, etc.

Can FAFSA give you a full-ride?

It is possible to get a full-ride (i.e. having all of your college expenses covered) through financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships. But it isn’t likely. Typically, for that to happen you’ll need to apply for and win competitive full-ride scholarships in addition to filing the FAFSA. You can also create your own “full-ride” by winning multiple scholarships that add up to the total amount you need to pay for college.

Beyond FAFSA: Other Ways to Pay for College

For many students, federal aid does not cover the total cost of college attendance and living expenses. But, you can cover those additional costs and work towards graduating debt free from college with scholarships! 

To easily find them, download Scholly Search, the #1 scholarship app that instantly matches you with hundreds-of-thousands of dollars scholarships based on your interests, accomplishments, and traits! 

You can also check out the rest of our blog where we share tips and strategies on things like how to get a student loan, find tuition reimbursement jobs, and win popular scholarships like the McDonald’s Scholarships and Taco Bell Scholarship

Good luck!