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How the FAFSA Works

Completing the FAFSA

The FAFSA may be complicated, but it isn't a test. This isn't the SAT and there are no trick questions (at least intentionally). The federal government actually wants you to fill this thing out successfully, so it's provided lots of help along the way. With the online version of the FAFSA, every question comes with a "Help and Hints" window with tips about how to fill in each field. And at the top of each page, there's even a "Live Help" link that launches a live chat session with a customer service representative [source: FAFSA].

If you have already filled out the "FAFSA on the Web" worksheet, then you're fully prepared to fill out the online application. The whole process should take you less than an hour from start to finish. If you haven't filled out the worksheet, gather together all of the documents and information that we mentioned on the previous page: tax returns, financial information, Social Security numbers and PINs.

Next you need to choose which FAFSA school year to complete. The FAFSA designates school years from July 1st to June 30th. So if you're entering school in August 2010, you'll fill out the 2010-2011 FAFSA. If you're applying for a summer session that begins in June 2010, you'll fill out the 2009-2010 version. Check with your school if you're unsure which FAFSA to choose.

Once you choose the application year, you will begin the online application by entering your social security number, name and selecting a FAFSA password. This is different than your PIN. You will need to the password to log back into a saved application. Once you begin the online FAFSA, you can save it at any time and come back later to finish it. There are "save" buttons at the bottom of every page.

There are seven steps to completing the FAFSA:

  1. Student demographics -- your name and contact information
  2. School information -- the Federal School Codes of the schools where you'll be applying for financial aid. You can look these up at the Web sites of the schools themselves or through a searchable FAFSA database. Don't worry, you can add or delete school codes later
  3. Dependency status -- whether you're applying as an independent or dependent of your parents.
  4. Parental demographics -- parents' names and contact information
  5. Financial information -- directly from your latest tax returns
  6. Sign and submit -- where you enter your PIN
  7. Confirmation -- You're done!

The Federal deadline for submitting the FAFSA is midnight Central Time on the very last day of the school year. So if you're filling out the 2010-2011 FAFSA, the deadline is midnight on June 30, 2011. Every state has its own FAFSA deadline for state grants and scholarships. Consult this chart for more details. Your school might have its own financial aid deadlines, so check with them as well.

In the end, the FAFSA is all about calculating your Estimated Family Contribution. Learn more about this magic number on the next page.