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How to Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

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By: Gen and Kelly Tanabe
Founders of SuperCollege and authors of 13 books on college planning.

Gen and Kelly Tanabe can answer your question in Expert Advice.




Know the basic eligibility requirements.

Before you fill out the FAFSA, make sure your family is eligible to receive federal financial aid. To receive aid, your child must …

  • have a high school diploma or General Education Development (GED) certificate or pass an approved "ability to benefit" test.

  • be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen.

  • have a valid Social Security number.

  • enroll in an eligible associate's, bachelor's or graduate degree program.

  • comply with the Selective Service registration, if required.

  • not owe a refund on a federal grant or be in default on a federal education loan.

  • have no drug convictions.
If you have any questions about these requirements, contact the college financial aid office.




Determine whether your child is dependent or independent.

Financial aid is typically based on both the parents' and student's income and assets. Most students entering college directly from high school are considered dependent students, which means that the parent is expected to contribute to the child's educational expenses.

You may have heard that if your child declares independence, only his or her income and assets will be considered, resulting in a larger financial aid package. This is true, but specific rules govern whether a student is considered independent for the purposes of financial aid.

A student is considered independent only if one of the following criteria applies. He or she must…

  • be at least 24 years old by December 31 of the award year.

  • be married as of the date the FAFSA is completed.

  • be enrolled in a master's or doctoral program (beyond a bachelor's degree) during the award year.

  • have at least one child who receives more than half his or her support from the student.

  • have a dependent (other than a child or a spouse) who lives with the student and receives more than half his or her support from the student.

  • be a student for whom a financial aid administrator makes a documented determination of independence by reason of other unusual circumstances.
As a parent, you may not simply say that you will not support your child through college so that he or she can be classified as an independent student. If this were possible, there would be many more independent students!




Find out who needs to file in cases of divorce.

If the parents are divorced, the FAFSA should be completed with information from the parent with whom the child lived for the majority of the past 12 months. (It does not matter which parent claims the child as a dependent for tax purposes.) If the child did not live with either parent or spent an equal amount of time with the two parents, the parental information on the FAFSA must be provided for the parent from whom the child received the most financial support during the preceding 12 months or the parent from whom the child received the most support in the last 12-month period during which support was given. If the parent providing the information has remarried, the stepparent's information is also required. A stepparent is considered a part of the student's family and therefore is expected to contribute to the student's educational expenses.




Always file online.

The paper-based FAFSA form is being phased out in favor of the online application. To access the FAFSA on the Web, log on to the U.S. Department of Education's web site at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov. Filing the FAFSA electronically has several advantages:

  • Online help for each question

  • Built-in checking that identifies potential errors before the application is processed

  • Faster filing that brings results within one to five days

  • Automatic calculations

  • Software encryption that protects your personal information
If you use FAFSA on the Web, you will need to sign the application electronically by requesting a personal identification number (PIN) at the PIN site (you can find the link at www.fafsa.ed.gov). Dependent students will need to have one parent sign the application, which means that both the student and parent must have PIN numbers. Parents may use the same PIN to sign applications for multiple children.

If you would rather sign a paper form, print out the signature page and mail it in. You will receive a PIN when your application is processed. This PIN can be used to access and sign a renewal FAFSA application for the next school year.


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