If there’s one thing more stressful than deciding what you’re gonna study in college—or which college you want to attend—it’s figuring out how you'll pay for it.

It ain’t cheap… but education matters, which is why the American government cooked up FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), a form students can fill out to get financial assistance in the form of federal grants, work-study funds, and loans.

Because there is so much at stake—and because making education accessible, easy, and stress-free is really the beating heart of our mission here at Brainscape—we thought we’d put together this guide for students who want/need FAFSA, but who feel overwhelmed by the application process.

Like most bureaucratic processes, it’s not always clear and obvious what you need to do, and when you need to do it, so we’ll do our best to make things crystal clear for you!

We’ll also attract your attention to the benefits you may have missed like, for example, the fact that FAFSA determines eligibility for other forms of aid, which is something that 85% of students totally miss!

So with all of this in mind, here are the answers to all of your pressing FAFSA questions:

  • Am I eligible for FAFSA?
  • What are the benefits of FAFSA?
  • Application process: How do I apply for FAFSA?
  • What’s the difference between FAFSA and the Pell Grant?
  • Can I apply both to FAFSA and the Pell Grant?
  • Timelines: How long does it take for FAFSA to be processed?
  • When is the deadline for FAFSA?
  • What happens if I miss the FAFSA deadline?
  • Are you READY for college?

[Plot twist: before you plummet yourself into student debt, should you even go to college? Is it worth the expense for you right now? This controversial guide was created for grad students whose philosophies apply just as much to college students.]

Your secret sauce to success…

And when you are ready to embark upon your exciting journey into your tertiary education, there’s no better “secret sauce” to acing your subjects than Brainscape!

We are the brains, minds, and hearts behind the world’s smartest study app, bringing together the world’s experts, top students, and educators to compile comprehensive collections of adaptive, digital flashcards for hundreds of subjects.

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So, when you’re ready, check out our extensive knowledge genome of subjects; read college flashcards for test prep in (almost) any subject; and watch this video to equip yourself with the tools you need to rise to your challenge:

Am I eligible for FAFSA?

To qualify for FAFSA, you must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or eligible non-citizen
  • Have a valid Social Security number
  • Be enrolled (or accepted for enrollment) in an eligible degree or certificate program at a qualifying institution
  • Have no drug-related convictions (otherwise, you cannot receive federal financial aid)
  • If you’re male, have registered with the Selective Service System

Finally, you must demonstrate financial need by completing the FAFSA form, which asks for information about your income, assets, and family size. (We’ll talk about that next!)

Before we do, though, it's important to note that eligibility for federal financial aid is not limited to traditional college students who are fresh out of high school.

Adults returning to school or attending school part-time may also be eligible. The best way to find out if you're eligible for FAFSA is to complete the application process and see what financial aid packages are available to you.

What are the benefits of FAFSA?

How to apply for Student financial aid FAFSA

This form can be a game-changer for students seeking financial assistance for their higher education, so let's dive in and discover the reasons why you should apply for FAFSA.

Benefit 1: Access to federal financial aid

Applying to FAFSA gives you access to federal financial aid programs. The U.S. Department of Education offers a wide range of grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study programs, which can help take the sting out of the (often exorbitant) cost of tuition, books, and living expenses, making college more affordable and accessible for students.

Benefit 2: Eligibility for state and institutional aid

By filling out the FAFSA, you may also become eligible for (and increase your odds of securing) state and institutional aid programs. Many states and colleges use the information provided on the FAFSA to determine eligibility for their own financial aid programs.

Knowing all the possible sources of financial aid is an important aspect of getting through your tertiary education without crippling your financial independence, so be sure to look into local, state, and national resources for financial aid!

Benefit 3: More affordable loans

If you need to take out loans to pay for your education, applying to FAFSA can secure more affordable loan options. Federal student loans typically have lower interest rates and more flexible repayment plans than private loans. This alone can save you thousands of dollars in interest over the life of your loans.

Benefit 4: Financial aid packages tailored to your needs

FAFSA considers your unique financial situation when calculating your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which measures how much you and your family can afford to contribute to your education. Using this information, schools will create a financial aid package (grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and loans) that is tailored to your specific needs.

[Psssst! Feeling a little overwhelmed? Here’s some great advice on how to choose a college major]

Application process: How do I apply for FAFSA?

Help with student financial aid FAFSA

Ah, now for the meaty bit! *rubs hands together*

Each year, on October 1, FAFSA opens its “doors" to applications, which means that, in the days leading up, you should follow this step-by-step process…

Step 1: Gather your documents

Before filling out the FAFSA, you'll need a few important documents. Make sure to gather your Social Security number, driver's license (if you have one), tax returns from the previous year, and any records of untaxed income you may have received.

Pro Tip: Most of the questions on the FAFSA are populated directly from you or your family’s federal tax forms. You can transfer your tax information directly from the IRS to make your life easier as you complete your application.

Step 2: Create an FSA ID

An FSA ID is a username and password that you'll use to access the FAFSA. You can create one on the Federal Student Aid website. Keep your FSA ID in a safe place, as you'll need it every year that you fill out the FAFSA.

Step 3: Fill out the FAFSA

The FAFSA is an online form that takes about 30 minutes to complete. (Go to https://studentaid.gov and click on the “Apply for Aid” button in the menu.) The questions will include some about your family's income, assets, and expenses. Be sure to answer all questions accurately and to the best of your knowledge.

Step 4: Submit the FAFSA

After filling out the FAFSA, submit it online. You'll receive a confirmation email, so make sure to check your inbox. If you encounter any issues or don’t understand something, don’t hesitate to pester the Federal Student Aid Information Center.

Step 5: Receive your Student Aid Report (SAR)

You'll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) within a few days of submitting the FAFSA. This report will summarize the information you provided on the FAFSA and will include your Expected Family Contribution, which, as we explained, estimates how much you and your family are expected to contribute to your education (while the federal government may cover the rest).

Step 6: Review your financial aid offers

After receiving your Student Aid Report, you'll start to receive financial aid offers from the schools you applied to. These offers will include grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and loans. Make sure you review each offer carefully and compare them to see which option is the best fit for you.

And when everything is signed, sealed, and delivered, read ‘22 College tips every student should know’ to prepare you for the next few years of your life!

What’s the difference between FAFSA and the Pell Grant?

FAFSA is a form that students fill out to determine their eligibility for federal financial aid programs, taking into account a student's financial need, as well as their family's income and assets. On the other hand, the Pell Grant is a specific type of federal grant awarded to students with exceptional financial need.

The grant is named after Senator Claiborne Pell, who championed the idea of providing financial aid to students who wouldn’t otherwise have the means to afford college. Unlike loans, Pell Grants do not have to be repaid, making them a covetable resource.

While FAFSA determines a student's eligibility for a variety of federal financial aid programs, the Pell Grant is just one of many types of aid that a student may be eligible for.

Can I apply to both FAFSA and the Pell Grant?

Absolutely! In fact, applying to FAFSA is the first step in determining your eligibility for the Pell Grant and other federal financial aid programs.

By filling out the FAFSA form, you'll provide the information necessary to determine what kind of financial aid package you are eligible for. This may include the Pell Grant and other grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and loans.

Timelines: How long does it take for FAFSA to be processed?

Deadlines for FAFSA applications

The processing time can vary, but it generally takes about 3-5 days for FAFSA to be processed and sent to the schools you've listed on your application. However, this is just the initial processing time, and it can take longer for your financial aid package to be finalized and for funds to be disbursed.

These timelines vary depending on the school you're attending and the financial aid programs you're eligible for, so there’s not much more we can say about it here. If you have questions about processing time, contact your school's financial aid office.

When is the deadline for FAFSA?

FAFSA opens for applications on October 1 of every year, and we recommend you submit your applications as soon as possible to ensure you’re first in line for financial aid. The federal deadline for FAFSA is then the following, June 30th.

So, for example, for the 2023-2024 academic year, the deadline is 11:59 p.m. on June 30, 2023, and If you need to submit corrections, you have until September 10, 2023. And if you're considering going to college for the 2024-2025 academic year, you'll want to be ready on October 1, 2023.

Having said this, the submission deadline for FAFSA can vary depending on your state and the school you're attending. To find out what those specific deadlines are, it’s really important that you check with your school's financial aid office.

Another thing that’s CRUCIAL to remember is that you must complete the FAFSA each and every year! (Your financial aid award amount may change over time, depending on your financial status and any income changes in your home.)

“What happens if I miss the FAFSA deadline?”

If you miss the FAFSA deadline, you may still be able to submit a late application, but you risk missing out on certain financial aid opportunities. Some federal financial aid programs, like the Pell Grant, have limited funding and may be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

So, ideally, you should submit your FAFSA as soon as possible. Don’t wait for the federal deadline to roll around because some schools have their own financial aid deadlines, and you want to give yourself the best possible chance of success.

If, however, you do miss the deadline, definitely still submit your FAFSA form because applications submitted after the deadline will still be considered for funding; it’s just that you won’t be near the first of the line for those first-come-first-served opportunities.

Pro Tip: Diarize FAFSA’s opening date of October 1 and set yourself (and your family) a reminder!

Are you READY for college?

Happy college students

Even if you’re yet to receive your college acceptance letter, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®)—or at least figuring out what you need to do—will place you well ahead of the pack. And the fact that you’re here reading this tells me you’re incredibly proactive and well on your way (so, well done).

And, remember, when you are ready to embark upon your exciting journey into your tertiary education, there’s no better “secret sauce” to acing your subjects than Brainscape!