Let’s be real: Filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. It’s long and boring — well, boring until you realize it’s your best shot at getting free money to help pay for college.
But a lot of students don’t fill out the FAFSA or do so late in the game because they wrongly believe they won’t qualify for aid or won’t qualify for enough to make it worth it. But applying late (or never) could cost you a lot more than most students realize.
Find out why you should fill out your FAFSA as close to its Oct. 1 opening date. And if you need help doing so, we’ve got resources for that too.
Why is FAFSA so important?
First things first: For anyone even considering attending college, the FAFSA is one of the most important steps in the process. If you don’t fill out the FAFSA, you take yourself out of the running for most kinds of student aid, including:
- Federal grants including the Pell Grant and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) (need-based aid)Subsidized federal student loans (need-based)
- Unsubsidized federal student loans (most students qualify for these regardless of need)
- Federal work-study benefitsSome state-based financial aid, including grants, scholarships, and loans
- School-based financial aid, including need-based grants and scholarships
- School-based merit aid, since many schools require you file a FAFSA before they’ll consider you
That’s … a lot. In fact, unless you have a proven system for winning the lottery, it leaves you with very few other aid options besides private scholarships. While those are options, you’re not guaranteed of getting any and even stellar students are unlikely to win enough scholarships to cover their entire cost of going to college.
We want everyone to get the college experience they want at an affordable price, so some of the data from Sallie Mae’s most recent How America Pays for College report was stunning.
Turns out, most people don’t fully understand why the FAFSA is important, or the level of benefits it offers to everyone. A lot of people think it’s only for lower-income families. That’s flat-out wrong. Virtually everyone qualifies for some aid through the FAFSA. As we saw above, even some merit-based aid requires you to fill it out to be considered.
The survey also found that 30% of college families didn’t even file the FAFSA. Of those, 36% didn’t because they thought they made too much to qualify. Many of the other families either missed the deadline, found the process too burdensome, or didn’t know about it.
Among families who did file the FAFSA, there’s still a lot of misunderstanding of how it works. Only one-quarter knew that the application opens in October, and roughly half didn’t realize that their state could have a different (earlier) deadline for completing it.
Put those details together and the picture it paints is concerning. Too many families aren’t filing, or they’re filing later in the school year than they need to.
Why is filing FAFSA later a problem?
You may be thinking: I get it – I need to file and I plan to. But why does it matter when I file?
There are two main reasons. First, if you wait too long, you could miss the deadline completely. You’ve got a lot on your plate as you wrap up your high school career. It’s easy enough to overlook one deadline out of the many you’re juggling. Nor do you want to wait until the last minute only to realize you forgot to gather information you need or your computer decided this was the perfect time to self-destruct.
Second, some types of funding are limited or are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. If you file the FAFSA too late, you could easily miss out on aid that you would have qualified for but went to students who filed earlier than you.
The flip side of that is that the earlier you file, the more likely you are to get a bigger slice of the financial aid pie.
When and how to file the FAFSA
In a perfect world, you’d fill out the FAFSA form the day it opens to the public — Oct. 1. (Subtle hint: That date’s coming up soon!)
Granted that day might not be the best possible day for you. But even if you can’t fill it out that day, shortly after it opens, you should, at minimum, take a peek at it to check on a few things.
First, make sure you don’t have any technical issues opening and using the FAFSA. This isn’t common, but you don’t want a last-minute technical issue on your side to keep you from submitting something this important. No one wants to lose a scholarship because their home Wi-Fi went down for an hour.
Next, go through the application to check what information you need. (We’ve got a cheat sheet to help.) Most of this info shouldn’t be hard to find (tax returns, income information, etc.), but you’ll need information from your parents/guardians and stepparents, if applicable, so make sure you leave time enough for document gathering.
If any of the questions look confusing, check our guide on completing the FAFSA. It can walk you through the form to make sure you get it right. (You can fix errors later if needed but doing it right the first time is always easier of course.
Once you feel confident you have what you need, find an hour when you have nothing else pressing to do so you can work through the application without rushing. Put on some tunes or a favorite podcast and get cracking. Believe it or not, once you get started, it’s not so bad. And once you’ve finished, you can sit back and wait to see how much aid you get.
Explore more funding options with Nitro
While the FAFSA is a vital part of your college education funding strategy, it’s also true that for many students this aid won’t cover the full cost of attendance. While you wait for your offer letter, consider checking out our resources on scholarships and student loans to help bolster the funding you have for college.