5 Things to Know about Financial Aid and the FAFSA

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first place to start when looking for financial aid

If you are applying to career schools or colleges, you are probably thinking about financial aid. Where is the best place to start? Most people start by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA. This application will help determine the loans and grants for which you may be eligible.

Below are five frequently asked questions that will help you understand more about FAFSA and the Federal Student Aid program.

1. Am I eligible for financial aid?

To find out if you are eligible for financial aid, you can read about basic eligibility requirements on the Federal Student Aid website. These eligibility criteria do not guarantee you any money, but if you satisfy these criteria, you can apply for aid using the FAFSA online application process.

2. What do I need to apply?

Before starting the online application process, it is a good idea to gather all of the materials you will need:

  • Your Social Security Number (SSN). This  number appears on your Social Security Card. If you do not know your SSN and cannot find your card, ask a parent or guardian if they might have record of your SSN. If you have no other way of finding your SSN, you may need to apply for a new card.
  • Your Alien Registration Number, if you are not a U.S. citizen
  • Your most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned. (You may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. More information about this tool is available on the help page at https://fafsa.ed.gov/help.htm.)
  • Bank statements (e.g., savings and checkings) and records of investments (e.g., stocks, bonds, real estate), if applicable.
  • Records of untaxed income, if applicable. (Examples of untaxed income might be child support received, interest income, or veterans non-education benefits.)
  • A Federal Student Aid PIN to sign in electronically. (To obtain a new PIN, visit www.pin.ed.gov.)
  • A list of schools to which you are applying. You must include at least one school in your application.

If you are a dependent student, then you will also need most of the above information for your parent(s).

3. How do I fill out the FAFSA?

If you feel unsure about the application process, one very helpful resource is a YouTube video which explains how to apply. It may be a good idea to view the video before starting your application.

Once you are ready to start your application, you can apply online or by paper application. For online applications, the process starts on the FAFSA home page. The “Apply for Aid” page also has useful tips at to help you through the online process.

To obtain a paper copy of the application, visit the FAFSA filing options page where you can download a copy or have a copy sent to you by mail.

4. What happens after I apply?

Within 3 days to 3 weeks after you submit the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report by e-mail that indicates the Expected Family Contribution. This is NOT the amount of money you will be expected to pay, and it is NOT the amount of money you will receive. It’s a number that the career school or college uses to determine the amount of aid you are eligible to receive. The schools that you listed on your FAFSA will also have a copy of the Student Aid Report. After you receive this report, you can contact the financial aid office at the schools where you are applying to find out whether they will be able to offer you a financial aid package.

5. What is the difference between a grant and a loan?

If you are eligible for financial aid, your career school or college will send you an award letter describing what financial aid is available to you. Be sure that you understand what type of aid you are being offered. For example, grants are “free money” that does not need to be repaid. But loans are not free. Loans need to be repaid—with interest—usually after you have completed your education.

The FAFSA website provides a video that describes the different types of aid. Take a moment to view this video, so that you have a better understanding of the commitment you are making.

Once the aid is awarded, the school—not the Federal government—will distribute your financial aid. Most schools apply your grant or loan directly toward your tuition and fees. Speak to the Financial Aid Advisor at your school if you have any questions about this.

Getting More Information

If you are looking for more information, the Federal Student Aid website is very helpful. It contains videos to help you apply, as well as Frequently Asked Questions, Help pages, and more.