If you should find yourself applying to colleges in the coming months or even years, you’re probably going to have at least a brief moment of panic when you realize just how much paperwork is involved. The good news is this: with just a little bit of guidance, you’ll be able to get through it with just a little bit of effort and attention to detail.
One of the most important documents you’ll have to fill out is the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. For most college students, the FAFSA is the very first step you’ll need to take in order to get federal student aid for college, of both the need-based and academic-based varieties.
Along with choosing the best degree program, filling out a FAFSA has become an integral part of the college admissions process. So what does a FAFSA do for you, exactly?
As we said above, the FAFSA is used to determine how much financial aid you qualify for. The federal government takes a look at your FAFSA and determines, among other things, your expected family contribution (EFC), which more-or-less serves as an appraisal of your family’s financial standing.
This might seem like kind of a harsh way of doing things, but it’s an essential process; by identifying which students come from less wealthy families, but may have a great deal of academic potential, the government is able to provide aid for the students who need it most. In some cases, it might even make the difference between attending your dream school or not.
Financial Aid Misconceptions
One of the most important functions of the FAFSA is to dispel some of the more popular financial aid misconceptions. Some inbound college students are tempted to skip the FAFSA altogether because they assume, for example, that their parents are too wealthy for them to receive financial aid, or that only students with the very best grades will qualify.
In both of these cases, the FAFSA could be a great help in identifying the types of aid you didn’t even know you were eligible for.
Filing Your FAFSA
There are essentially three ways to get your FAFSA filed. The first step, of course, is to know your deadlines; the window of opportunity for most federal student aid programs is between January 1st and June 30th, if you intend to enroll in college in the fall. State deadlines can vary; check with the official FAFSA site to be sure.
When it comes to actually filing your paperwork, you can do it either electronically or using a hard copy. You can also check with your college’s financial aid office to see if you can file through them; this is also a great way to get some guidance if you’re having trouble getting through the paperwork on your own.
Certain types of federal student aid programs operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Because of this, you want to be sure that you don’t save your FAFSA paperwork until the last minute. Remember that this is only the first step, also: most of the colleges you apply to might take your FAFSA and EFC results into consideration when they’re putting together their own aid packages. So get it done early; you’ll thank yourself later.