According to the U.S. Department of Education, the Web-based FAFSA is the preferred method of completing this form, and it's also the most popular with students. While hard copies of the application are available at most college financial aid offices, there are a number of reasons to choose the online FAFSA over a paper copy. First, you'll know immediately that your application has been received. There's no chance of it getting lost in the mail or misplaced on someone's desk, which could cause you to miss the deadline. Second, Web-based FAFSAs are often processed more quickly, with aid packages sent to students sooner than they are to those who filed by mail.
Before you begin filling out your FAFSA, complete the FAFSA Eligibility Worksheet, which can be found on the FAFSA Web site. This document will help you determine whether you can receive certain types of aid based on any criminal history you may have.
To make completing the FAFSA as quick and easy as possible, gather together all the necessary documents before you settle in to complete the form. You'll need your social security card and driver's license, as well as tax records, bank information and any investment documents in your name. If you're still dependent on your parents for support, you'll also need copies of all their financial records.
Once you have all the necessary paperwork, be sure to read the instructions for the FAFSA so you don't make a mistake. It's also helpful to understand how different terms are used so you can provide the correct information. For example, the FAFSA may qualify "total income" quite differently than other forms you've come across, so be sure to read all instructions and definitions to avoid confusion.
After you've finished the entire FAFSA, you must provide a signature. This can be done online using a personal identification number (PIN), or by mailing in a signature page. PINs must be requested on the FAFSA Web site, and it may take a few days before they're issued. You can also print out a signature page and mail it in after your form is submitted. If you're worried about your form getting lost in the mail or mislaid, stick with PIN-based signatures [source: US Department of Education].
Of course, all of this work will be for nothing if you don't adhere to the strict deadlines for this form. To learn more about FAFSA deadlines, and why you should apply well in advance of these dates, read on to the next section.