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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thom

How to File the FAFSA with Ease

Updated: Jan 23

Here’s our answers to some of our most common FAFSA questions as well as our personal tips on completing your FAFSA with ease.
Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

One of the biggest changes to this year’s college application cycle has been the updating of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a form that serves as a critical step in the awarding of federal, state, and institutional financial aid. This year, the FAFSA underwent a major overhaul which resulted in the form’s release being delayed from its usual annual October release date until late December. 

Here’s a breakdown of many of the major changes in the 2024-25 FAFSA:

  1. Starting this year, there is a new delineation between an “applicant” and a “contributor” for the FAFSA. An applicant is the individual who will be enrolling in college while a contributor is someone (a parent, a parent’s spouse, adoptive parent, or guardian) who is providing financial information pertaining to the applicant. Being a contributor on a FAFSA does not mean that you are financial responsible for paying for college, just that you are providing supporting financial data for the applicant.

  2. The new FAFSA interfaces with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to access income tax information for both the applicant and any contributors. While individuals can certainly enter this tax information on your own, it will likely be more convenient and accurate for the FAFSA to pull income information directly from the IRS. Errors in FAFSA data entry are one of the most common mistakes that applicants make in completing their FAFSA.

  3. The Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) is being replaced by the Student Aid Index (SAI) which will now serve as a variable in determining your eligibility for financial aid. More on the calculation of the SAI can be found here.

While I have spent a considerable amount of time advising families on completing the FAFSA, I have never gone through the submission process myself as a parent. Now with my oldest son attending college next year, my FAFSA initiation has begun. Here are our answers to some of our most common FAFSA questions, as well as our personal tips on completing your FAFSA with ease:

Do I need to fill out the FAFSA?

This is the most obvious and basic question of all. Often this is coupled with, “we don’t anticipate receiving any need-based aid.” Even if that is the case, our advice is still the same: yes, you need to fill out the FAFSA. Not only is completing a FAFSA a requirement for consideration of any kind of financial aid (including merit-based scholarships) at the vast majority of colleges, it is a necessary step to unlock federal and state grants, including the Tennessee Promise program for our many local residents. 

You will need to fill out a FAFSA every year for which your student is in college.

How long does it take to complete the FAFSA?

The new “applicant/contributor” structure means that you will want to sit down with your student to create a account for both you (as a parent) and your student. This involves confirming your identity with the IRS, which allows for the transfer of information directly to the FAFSA as well as your student (as the applicant) to invite you (as contributor) to officially initiate the FAFSA. For us, it took a couple of days for the IRS to FAFSA link to be confirmed, but we were pretty early in the launch process. My understanding is that this amount of time has been shortened to several hours. Once that link was established, it only took 20-30 minutes for us to complete the remaining application. Many of our parent clients who have completed a FAFSA for an older sibling have reported to us that completing the 2024-25 FAFSA was much easier.

What information should I have available to me when completing my FAFSA?

You will need:

  • Your Social Security Number (for yourself and for each applicant, if you are submitting information for more than one student)

  • Alien Registration Number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)

  • Your 2022 Federal tax return and W-2s, and any records of untaxed income (if applicable)

  • Banking and investment records (if applicable)

Even if you are using the direct import option from the IRS, you should plan on having all of these documents available in case the link between the IRS and your FAFSA application fails for any reason.

Once the FAFSA is submitted, what comes next?

The current indication from the Federal Student Aid Office and from colleges is that they (colleges) anticipate first receiving FAFSA applicant data at the end of January 2024. So until then, you can confirm that you (and your student) have received email confirmations that the FAFSA is submitted. AFTER February 1, 2024 you can begin accessing the portals of the various colleges to which you submitted your FAFSA, BUT do not be surprised if it takes some time for it to appear. Just as this is a new process for applicants and parents, it is also a new process for colleges. Be diligent, but patient.

You can also check to make sure that any other scholarship and financial aid forms (such as the CSS Profile) are submitted to colleges that require them. 

If you are completely new to the financial aid submission process, be aware that you have a one in three chance of being selected for FAFSA verification. This is a required additional step in the financial aid process in which the U.S. Department of Education randomly selects a FAFSA to be verified by the college(s) receiving that application. If you are selected, you will need to submit tax documents (and other paperwork) to each college who received your FAFSA as soon as possible. Colleges cannot offer you a financial aid package without that verification information if you are selected.

It is for this, and many other reasons, that we advise students and parents to stay very connected to your email inbox once the FAFSA, and all other application materials, are submitted.

Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process?  Let's chat.

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