How Long Does It Take to Apply for Financial Aid?

The application season for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens on January 1 of each year. (The start date for the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form is October 1.) After the family completes the FAFSA, it can take several months for the college financial aid office to determine a student’s financial aid eligibility. The family will then have a few weeks to decide whether to accept the offer of admission and the financial aid package.

Although the U.S. Department of Education says that it takes less than half an hour to complete FAFSA on the Web (FOTW), an hour is a more realistic estimate, assuming that the family has already assembled all the information needed to complete the form. Gathering the necessary information may add a few hours to the total. The frequently asked questions on the FAFSA web site reports that it takes 55 minutes to complete a FAFSA for the first time, 45 minutes for a Renewal FAFSA and 10 minutes to submit corrections to the FAFSA. The Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 notice on the PDF version of the FAFSA estimates that completing the paper FAFSA will take 3 hours on average, including the time to read the instructions and gather the necessary data. (The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE is a longer form and may take extra time to complete.)

The time needed to complete the FAFSA will vary based on the applicant’s specific circumstances. The online form has built-in skip logic that may reduce the number of questions that must be answered. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool also may streamline the process by transferring information from the family’s prior year federal income tax returns to the FAFSA, if the family is eligible to use this tool. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool becomes available a few weeks to a few months after the family files their federal income tax returns, depending on whether they file their returns electronically or on paper.

College financial aid offices typically start working on the financial aid packages for admitted students in January and February. Financial aid award letters are then issued in late March and early April. Most students will have until the May 1 National Candidates Reply Date to decide whether to accept the college’s offer of admissions and financial aid. (A survey by the National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA) reported that 87% of colleges send financial aid award letters to students in March and April and 8% send the award letters after May 1.) Students who apply under early admissions programs, such as early action and early decision, may receive financial aid award letters in December.