How the FAFSA Works

Before You Fill Out the FAFSA

The FAFSA can be complicated, so make sure you have all the necessary materials on hand before you begin.
The FAFSA can be complicated, so make sure you have all the necessary materials on hand before you begin.
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The FAFSA is complicated. After all, this is the same government that brought you the IRS. That said, you can streamline the process considerably by gathering all of your documents and information before you start the actual application.

The first step is to complete your income tax return for the most recent year -- which is easier said than done [source: FAFSA]. The FAFSA asks for financial information directly from your tax returns, so it's very helpful to have your returns handy. If you're applying for financial aid as a dependent of your parents, then you'll be using your parent's tax returns. If you're applying as an independent, then you need to supply your own income information.

While you're digging out the tax return, you might as well grab all of your financial records. This includes W2 forms, investment data (bonds, stocks, CDs), mortgage statements, IRA statements, bank statements -- anything that shows how much money you have and where it is.

If you can't remember your Social Security number, now is the time to figure it out. If you're applying as a dependent, you will also need at least one of your parents' Social Security numbers and birth dates. If you're not a U.S. citizen, you'll need your permanent resident card or alien registration information [source: FAFSA].

The best way to be fully prepared to fill out the FAFSA is to download, print and complete the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet. This checklist runs through every question that you'll be asked on the actual FAFSA. If you don't know the answer on the worksheet, you won't know it on the FAFSA, so now is the time to figure it out. The good news is that once you can supply all of the information on the worksheet, the real FAFSA is a breeze.

The final thing you need to do before starting the application is to apply for a Federal Student Aid PIN. If you're filling out the FAFSA online, you will need to enter a unique four-digit personal identification number (PIN) as an electronic signature. If you're applying as a dependent, both you and one of your parents will need a PIN [source: FAFSA]. The good news is that it's easy and fast to get a PIN -- simply supply your name and Social Security number -- and you can even choose your own. Note: you don't need a PIN if you are mailing in the paper version of the FAFSA.

Now you're ready to start the real application. Keep reading for some more FAFSA tips.