Filling Out the FAFSA®: A Guide for Students & Parents

By Kimberly Gibson-Tran

It’s no mystery that some families struggle to afford the cost of a college education. For this reason, the U.S. government and many colleges provide financial aid and need-based scholarships to students who demonstrate financial need. Each year, the FAFSA® allows families to apply and see if they qualify for scholarships, grants, and special low-interest loans offered by the U.S. Department of Education.

Colleges and the U.S. Dept. of Education determine financial aid eligibility based on numerous factors. We highly recommend that families fill out the FAFSA to see if it helps reduce college costs. In this guide, we answer common questions about financial aid and go over what to expect from filling out the FAFSA.

Navigate Through This Guide:

What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” It’s a government form parents of high school seniors submit to help their students officially qualify for different types of aid from the U.S. federal government.

Who should fill out the FAFSA?

Parents, this is your big moment to help your student in the college application process. At this point in the year, high school seniors are typically in the thick of advanced classes, organization leadership roles, and drafting multiple college essay supplements. Parents can really take some pressure off a student by filling out and filing this form, which mainly has to do with family income and tax information.

Are there requirements for filling out the form?

There are several items to report on the form including student dependency status, parent information including earnings and savings, family social security numbers, data from the IRS (which can be accessed through an IRS Data Retrieval Tool), reports of any student income, parent assets, etc. In short, this consists of information to which parents have easier access.

Why should I apply for federal student aid?

You should still submit the FAFSA form even if you doubt that you will qualify for much need-based aid. First of all there is no downside for chances of admission when applicants submit the FAFSA. Secondly, a student might qualify for aid that he or she didn’t know about.

To qualify for merit based financial aid like scholarships, you need to complete FAFSA as well. Colleges take your family’s financial situation from the form into account, including how many other dependents your family supports. The FAFSA gives colleges information to compare your family’s financial need with those of others. This allows colleges to offer available funds to qualified applicants.

Who qualifies for FAFSA money?

Who might qualify for federal aid or aid money from colleges depends on circumstances unique to each college applicant. Unfortunately, there isn’t just one answer or a simple chart based on what parents earn. The FAFSA exists to help families source college funds by providing colleges with data points for each student and by connecting families with federal aid when applicable.

Some basic requirements for federal financial aid include high school graduation or GED certificate, acceptance to college, and having a valid Social Security number along with some additional documentation.

Most non-U.S. citizens will not qualify for financial aid provided by the U.S. Dept. of Education. However, certain circumstances could categorize you as an “eligible noncitizen.” 

Is FAFSA free money?

The FAFSA is not purely a formula for whether you qualify for scholarships or grants (which would, in fact, be funds that do not require repayment). The U.S. government and colleges use the FAFSA to assess your eligibility for supplementing your expected family contribution (EFC) with several types of aid—some of which require repayment. You have to read aid offers from colleges carefully.

Types of Federal Financial Aid

Types of financial aid colleges offer students based on “Financial Need” calculated from FAFSA data include the following:

Federal Pell Grant

The Federal Pell Grant is for students whose need the government deems “exceptional”, and it does not require repayment. Based on the FAFSA, if your student is eligible for a Federal Pell Grant, he or she can receive that aid without worrying that funds in this program will run out.

Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)

FSEOG is an aid opportunity that some colleges have access to through the federal government. Participating schools receive a certain amount of this aid from the government, so once a school’s allotment is disbursed, there are no more funds even if a student might be eligible. This is one of the reasons it’s imperative to submit the FAFSA form as soon as possible and to apply early to colleges.

Loans

The U.S. Department of Education offers a variety of loans to students and their parents to help afford the cost of college.

  • Direct Subsidized Loan: This is a government-sponsored loan, meaning that a student would be responsible for repaying the money plus interest on the money, which gets compounded into the loan if not paid regularly. The U.S. Dept. of Ed. awards these loans based on financial need.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loan: This is a government-sponsored loan in which eligibility is not based on financial need. However, the process for qualifying for this loan involves filling out the FAFSA form. Colleges will determine the amount for which you qualify.
  • Direct PLUS Loans: These are additional government-sponsored loans available to students or their parents. Credit history is taken into consideration for this loan. Eligibility does not depend on financial need. However, you must fill out the FAFSA first before applying for this loan.

Keep in mind that government-sponsored student loans come with a lower interest rate than most private student loans. Because student loans are confusing and there are several different options, families should take them on with caution and after research.

Federal Work Study

This is a program allowing qualified students to work on or, in some cases, off campus for funds to be applied to education-related expenses. Funds for this program are finite, making it vital to apply to a college early to receive aid from the college’s federal work-study program.

What about merit-based aid?

Some colleges seek to attract top-performing students by awarding aid in the form of scholarships, tuition discounts, fee waivers, stipends, or other forms. Eligibility is based on a student’s transcript data (e.g. GPA or class rank) and standardized test scores (e.g. SAT® or ACT® test). Each college varies in the amount of money set aside for merit-based aid, and this aid can run out. This is another reason why applying early is very important if you need financial aid.

Keep in mind that the Ivy League and other very selective institutions do not offer merit-based aid. This is often due to the fact that they do not need to incentivize high-performing students to apply. Typically, highly selective colleges consider need-based aid only. For highly selective colleges, merit is what can help you get in, while financial need can help you with options for how to pay.

The U.S. government requires all universities to provide prospective students a tool on their websites to calculate broadly what amount their family might be expected to pay to attend. This tool is called the Net Price Calculator. If you search for the name of a college and “Net Price Calculator” you can quickly find the page. Here, you will fill out some basic family income information alongside GPA and test scores.

How is financial aid determined?

Colleges calculate financial aid by looking at two main factors: Cost of Attendance (COA) and Expected Family Contribution (EFC). COA is the estimate of how much money a student would need to pay tuition and support herself at a particular college for one year. EFC is the number colleges calculate using information from the FAFSA form to estimate what dollar amount they believe a family can contribute monetarily for the student to attend college.

Colleges take your COA and subtract it from the EFC. What’s left is officially called the “financial need” of a student over the course of that one year. Colleges will then offer options for meeting that calculated need.

How much financial aid can I get?

How much financial aid for which you qualify depends on several data points colleges need from the FAFSA to give an official number to your “Financial Need.” For any college on your list, make sure to find its “Net Price Calculator” to get a general estimate on merit (if applicable) and need-based aid your family receive upon acceptance into the university.

When should you complete the FAFSA?

The FAFSA opens on October 1st of each year. Often, there are benefits to applying as early as possible. There are multiple types of deadlines listed on the student aid website, so remember to do your research and plan ahead.

Dates to Remember:

  • FAFSA Open Date: Each year the FAFSA form opens on October 1st.
  • College Deadline: Each college may have its own FAFSA priority deadlines that vary depending on when you apply. For example, the FAFSA deadline at Harvard University is November 1, 2022 for students applying with the Restrictive Early Action deadline for the 2023-2024 academic year.
  • State Deadline: Many states have their own priority deadline as well. For example, Texas’ priority deadline for the 2023-2024 academic year is January 15, 2023.
  • Federal Deadline: This is the deadline by which the federal government requires you to submit the form. It typical falls toward the end of the academic year for which you apply. For example, the deadline for the 2023-2024 academic year is June 30, 2024. We highly recommend that you don’t wait this long to submit your application.

As soon as the form becomes available on October 1st, families of high school seniors should begin the process of filling out the data and submit it in a timely fashion to increase their chances of receiving federal aid before some of those sources run out.

How do I fill out the FAFSA form?

The student aid website includes a FAFSA checklist that details everything needed to fill out the form. It lists the following:

  • Social security numbers for immediate family members
  • Driver’s license (if obtained)
  • Alien Registration number (if not a citizen)
  • Federal tax documents (W2, IRS form1040)
  • Numbers related to untaxed income and investments
  • Finances of bank accounts

FAFSA vs. CSS Profile

The CSS Profile is another application similar to the FAFSA that families can fill out. It is offered through the College Board®. The information required for this form is similar to that which you entered on the FAFSA, though the CSS Profile is more detailed. For example, the CSS Profile also considers the value of a family’s home as an asset, while the FAFSA considers real estate holdings other than a family’s home. Many colleges use the CSS Profile to calculate a student’s qualifications for non-federal aid. In other words, aid students can receive directly from the college.

Like the FAFSA, the CSS Profile becomes available to fill out starting October 1st of each year. Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile has a cost to submit The CSS’s cost is $25 for the first school and $16 for each additional school. You may qualify for a fee waiver if you already qualify for a fee waiver for the SAT test. The CSS Profile also requires data from both living parents regardless of marital or custody status.

Approximately, 250 schools across the country require submission of the CSS Profile, primarily private schools and many top-ranking colleges. The good news is that there are quite a few similarities between the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. Once you’ve gathered the data and documents for one, you have them ready for the other.

Need help preparing for college applications?

At KD College Prep, we offer a variety of test prep and college counseling programs to help students reach their college admissions and scholarship goals.

Kimberly Gibson-Tran is an advisor at the Coppell campus and a member of our college counseling team.

Disclaimer: FAFSA® is a registered trademark owned by the U.S. Department of Education. KD College Prep has no affiliation with this institution and KD College Prep is not approved or endorsed by it. Furthermore, KD College Prep is not a financial advisor. We cover only some very basic information in our 12th grade planning and guidance seminar, but we can recommend ethical, seasoned professionals to help you in more detail.

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Mithra A. – Class of 2022

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Jon D. – Parent

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“Coming into this whole process, I had absolutely no idea what anything was, and your help was invaluable—your encouraging words, strategic advice, and wholesome stories and jokes really got me through a stressful time! I'm still on the waitlist at Harvard... Read more...

Shreyas R. – Class of 2020

“The most beneficial guidance I received during my College Counseling experience was being taught that it's completely ok to not know what I want to do with the rest of my life at 17/18 years old. Steve told me that a good school will help me find my path. Also, Steve's knowledge about what colleges were wanting to see in potential admissions candidates was a huge help... “There was not one specific beneficial moment or turning point in my time working with Steve, there were many. He encouraged me during the entire application process and brought to my attention many colleges I wouldn't have considered or heard about without his help.”
“The most beneficial guidance I received during my College Counseling experience was being taught that it's completely ok to not know what I want to do with the rest of my life at 17/18 years old. Steve told me that a... Read more...

Jake W. – Class of 2020

"I'm very happy my daughter chose KD as her learning partner to achieve her goals. All the experiences with KD and the Directors there are fabulous. My daughter has improved significantly."
"I'm very happy my daughter chose KD as her learning partner to achieve her goals. All the experiences with KD and the Directors there are fabulous. My daughter has improved significantly."

Zarni, Daughter – Class of 2021

"I took KD classes the summer before my junior year, and I was finished with my SAT® test by December...The test prep classes also helped me earn the award of National Merit® Finalist."
"I took KD classes the summer before my junior year, and I was finished with my SAT® test by December...The test prep classes also helped me earn the award of National Merit® Finalist."

Claire I. – Class of 2020

"It's been super helpful, and I've noticed my scores go up both on my SAT®/ACT® scores as well as test scores in school... Overall, I believe this to be the best college prep that money can buy."
"It's been super helpful, and I've noticed my scores go up both on my SAT®/ACT® scores as well as test scores in school... Overall, I believe this to be the best college prep that money can buy."

Gopi C. – Class of 2021

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"KD helped me come up with a game plan for the colleges I wanted to attend, as well as any backups, and how to manage my time during this stressful period. They helped to ease the stress and made... Read more...

Omar S. – Class of 2020

"My initial goals when I first started working with the KD Counseling crew was to compile a list of colleges that I would be somewhat interested in attending and fit my career goals. I think that this step I was by far the most concerned about. I didn’t know how exactly I should go about choosing which places to apply to and if I were to be accepted, if they would fit me. The team did a wonderful job considering my likes and dislikes and helped me compile a list of colleges that suited my tastes and would further my academic career. "After this integral first step, my focus turned towards time management and writing quality essays that would stand out to colleges. I got... Read more...
"My initial goals when I first started working with the KD Counseling crew was to compile a list of colleges that I would be somewhat interested in attending and fit my career goals. I think that this step I was by... Read more...

Nina H. – Class of 2020

"I was thankful for all the help I received from KD in preparing for my SAT® and ACT® exams. The workshops they offered, as well as the practice exams, gave me the tools I needed to do my very best."
"I was thankful for all the help I received from KD in preparing for my SAT® and ACT® exams. The workshops they offered, as well as the practice exams, gave me the tools I needed to do my very best."

Morgan D. – Class of 2020

"KDCP is a must for students wanting to stay a step ahead of the game for getting into college. My son has gained huge insight from the ACT®/SAT® practice workshops, practice tests, and essay class."
"KDCP is a must for students wanting to stay a step ahead of the game for getting into college. My son has gained huge insight from the ACT®/SAT® practice workshops, practice tests, and essay class."

Tiffany – Son, Class of 2021

"KD helped to increase the efficiencies of how I took the national exams. I was also able to implement these efficiencies in my daily school studies within the IB program at PESH. I would (and have) recommend KD to those students wanting an edge on their national test scores!"
"KD helped to increase the efficiencies of how I took the national exams. I was also able to implement these efficiencies in my daily school studies within the IB program at PESH. I would (and have) recommend KD to those students... Read more...

Daniel J. – Class of 2020

"Not only have I been able to significantly improve my test scores, I have learned a tremendous amount of information about the college application process due to complimentary events that KD offers."
"Not only have I been able to significantly improve my test scores, I have learned a tremendous amount of information about the college application process due to complimentary events that KD offers."

Sam H. – Class of 2020

"I came to KD the summer before my senior year with only my determination and big goals! KD provided me with the resources necessary to improve my test score to increase my chances at my dream school, Notre Dame, with the help from amazing teachers and staff. I am so grateful for KD!"
"I came to KD the summer before my senior year with only my determination and big goals! KD provided me with the resources necessary to improve my test score to increase my chances at my dream school, Notre Dame, with the... Read more...

Matt K. – Class of 2020

"I started classes at KD the summer before 9th grade. I...made a perfect score on the PSAT (earning the National Merit® scholarship) and, after taking the SAT® test only once (a relief!), scored a 1590/1600."
"I started classes at KD the summer before 9th grade. I...made a perfect score on the PSAT (earning the National Merit® scholarship) and, after taking the SAT® test only once (a relief!), scored a 1590/1600."

Thomas D. – Class of 2019

"In just one year, I was able to raise my score by 300 points and get into my dream school."
"In just one year, I was able to raise my score by 300 points and get into my dream school."

Piper F. – Class of 2020

"Having our recent GHS graduate attend KD was life changing. It provided our son with choices and opportunities that he might not have had otherwise."
"Having our recent GHS graduate attend KD was life changing. It provided our son with choices and opportunities that he might not have had otherwise."

Kathy – Son attends Mizzou

test prep testimonial grace
“I came to KD College Prep after already using another tutoring service which we were not seeing results with. Due to time constraints, the traditional classes were not going to be feasible for my daughter. They took the time to figure out a personal plan that would work for her and were always available for our questions and helping her reach her goals. Every employee from the managers to the students working at their locations are top notch.”
“I came to KD College Prep after already using another tutoring service which we were not seeing results with. Due to time constraints, the traditional classes were not going to be feasible for my daughter. They took the time to figure... Read more...

Tracy – Daughter, Class of 2020

"The KD College Prep course not only provided test practice but also motivated her to work hard for her college applications. It gave her the confidence to dream big!"

"The KD College Prep course not only provided test practice but also motivated her to work hard for her college applications. It gave her the confidence to dream big!"

Prema – Daughter attends Rice

Score Higher. Shine Brighter.

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*Restrictions apply. See discount page for details. Offer ends December 7, 2022.