Start the 2016-2017 FAFSA Tutorial: The FAFSA in 7 Easy Steps

Filing the FAFSA 2016-2017 Edition Cover Paperback
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Students and parents often find the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be a little intimidating. The form asks more than 100 questions about family finances and demographic details. The FAFSA is slightly more complicated than the typical federal income tax return. Officially, the form should take less than an hour to complete, but most parents don’t have advanced degrees in economics. Some parents want help completing the FAFSA, because they worry that making a mistake on the FAFSA will affect their ability to pay for college, ruining their child’s life forever.

Don’t panic! Take a deep breath. Relax.

This free step-by-step guide makes completing the FAFSA much easier. Written by the experts, it explains what each question means and how the answers affect eligibility for need-based financial aid.

This tutorial is based on the full-length book, Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The Filing the FAFSA book is available for free download in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format. The book goes into greater depth than this tutorial, and includes tips about how to avoid the most common FAFSA errors, ways to increase eligibility for need-based financial aid and how to appeal for more financial aid.

Use the Correct Year’s Form

From January 1 to June 30 of each year, there are two versions of the FAFSA available. One version is for the current academic year, while the other is for the upcoming school year. The FAFSA for the school year that begins July 1, 2016 is the 2016-2017 FAFSA. Downloadable PDF versions of previous years forms are available from the FAFSA form archive.

Before Starting the FAFSA

The first step in applying for financial aid involves determining each college’s financial aid application deadlines and required forms. The student and parents will need to gather some personal paperwork as well as the appropriate IRS tax forms before starting the FAFSA. This tutorial provides a list of the necessary forms and other documentation.

Collect your paperwork: Documents Needed to File the FAFSA

Please note that it is not necessary to file federal income tax returns or be admitted to a college before filing the FAFSA. The FAFSA should be filed as soon as possible after January 1, to avoid missing state and college deadlines. It is ok to initially file the FAFSA with estimated income and tax information, based on 1099 and W-2 statements and the last pay stub of the year, or even the previous year’s income tax returns (if income does not change a lot from one year to the next). Applicants will be required to update the income and tax information on the FAFSA after the federal income tax returns are filed. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) makes it easy to update this information on the FAFSA.

This tutorial is based on the demo version of the 2016-2017 FAFSA on the Web (FOTW). Please note that any personal information in the FOTW screen snapshots is from a set of demo or test data provided by the U.S. Department of Education and does not come from a real application.

Quick Tips

  • When the FAFSA refers to “I,” “You,” “Your,” etc. it is referring to the student (not the parent, family, or FAFSA preparer).
  • Always double check even basic demographic items, such as the student’s name, Social Security number, email address, mailing address and ZIP code.
  • Nothing will delay a FAFSA faster than errors or omissions. Check all responses carefully.
  • Colors matter and each year’s paper FAFSA PDF has a different color scheme. For the 2016-2017 FAFSA, student-related items are in orange and items for the parent(s) to complete are in purple. (In 2017-2018 the student section will be green, followed by dark blue in 2017-2018, yellow in 2018-2019, and then it will return to orange. The parent section is always in purple.)
  • The FAFSA is a free form, as the name suggests. Students and parents do not need to pay to submit or have the form processed.
  • Students must reapply for financial aid every year.
  • File the FAFSA as early as possible! Some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis and some states have very early FAFSA deadlines for state aid. File the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1 of each year. Students who file the FAFSA in January, February and March receive more than twice as much grant funding, on average, as students who file the FAFSA later.