10 First Steps for Early FAFSA Success

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Whether you like it or not, completing the FAFSA is the first step on the road to receiving financial aid for college. The FAFSA determines what aid you will receive from your college as well as state and federal governments. Some scholarship committees also use FAFSA.

Key Takeaways

  • The FAFSA will determine what kind of aid you will receive from your college, state, and federal programs.
  • Filing out the FAFSA early can ensure you get the maximum amount of funding you are eligible for.
  • There are steps you can take to make sure your FAFSA is filled out correctly and early.

By filing your FAFSA early, you will help ensure that you can receive the maximum amount of funding you're eligible for. So here are 10 straight-forward and helpful "musts" that will help you achieve early FAFSA success:

1. You Must File an FAFSA

If you expect federal financial aid of any sort, the only way to get it is by filing a FAFSA. It is also used by states and colleges for their financial aid, any federal student loans you need, and some scholarship committees, so there really is no way around it.

2. You Must File an FAFSA Early

Although the starting date has been moved up to October 1, the best FAFSA strategy has always been to file early to make sure you receive all of the financial aid to which you are entitled.


Many funds give money to those eligible on a first-come, first-served basis until the money runs out.

Once you have this out of the way, you should be able to get financial aid offers earlier, which will make comparing college costs easier.

3. You Must Know Your Deadlines

There are several deadlines in the college application process and you need to be aware of them all.

There is the college application itself - early action, early decision, or regular. There will be college, state, and federal financial aid deadlines, and also scholarship deadlines. Get organized so you can get everything done on time.

4. You Must Have an FSA ID

If you haven’t already applied for an FSA identification, get it done now so you can move forward on your FAFSA.

Your FSA ID is the username and password you'll use to log into the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to fill out or update your FAFSA each year. You can create one by providing your Social Security number, name, and birthday on the "Create an Account" page of the Federal Student Aid website.

5. You Must Use the FAFSA Website

Make sure the information you're getting or the personal information you're giving is on a trusted website. Any application but studentaid.gov/h/apply-for-aid/fafsa is probably a scam.

6. You Must Know Your Definitions

Don’t assume anything—read the explanations and take the necessary time to think through your answers. Don’t listen to rumor mills when answering these questions:

  • Legal guardian: Don’t answer that your parents are your legal guardians unless they have been so appointed by the state. Don’t answer this question unless an actual court has appointed someone as your legal guardian.
  • Parent: You cannot just say that you live with grandparents or a parent with a lower income. There are specific rules to follow to determine which parent, and possible stepparent, information you will use.
  • Household size: Read the rules to find out how to calculate the household size, especially if you don’t live with your parents or if you live in a household with step-siblings.
  • Attending college: Include all members of your family who will attend college during the year under consideration, including yourself, but don’t include any parents in this figure.

7. You Must Check Your Work

Haste makes waste, as the old saying goes, and this is especially true when it comes to completing the FAFSA.


Mistakes lead to delays as the colleges try to get accurate information, which could lead to missed deadlines or loss of financial aid.

Make sure you understand the differences between parent and student sections, use the names shown on Social Security cards, and re-check the Social Security numbers you provide. Simple typos can lead to major headaches.

8. You Must Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool

Technically you don’t have to, but why wouldn’t you? Instead of sitting there and typing in all of the information yourself, use the DRT to directly populate the financial areas of your FAFSA from the appropriate federal income tax return.

9. You Must Include School Codes

The major tool most colleges use to make financial aid decisions is the FAFSA. You will want to use the correct codes so your selected colleges receive your information.

You can go back and add colleges later, but you want to make sure the preferred choices get your information as soon as possible.

10. You Must Sign the FAFSA

The last step is to use the student and parent FSA ID to sign the FAFSA. If it is not signed it will not be submitted. If you cannot sign with an FSA ID for some reason, the student and parent do have the option to mail a signature page. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the first step to applying for financial aid?

The first step to applying for financial aid is to set up a Federal Student Aid ID. It's the username and password you'll use to fill out your FAFSA form. That form is used by your college, state and federal government to determine what aid you're eligible for.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Federal Student Aid. "FAFSA Deadlines."

  2. Federal Student Aid. "Creating and Using the FAFSA ID."

  3. Federal Student Aid. "Legal Guardianship."

  4. Federal Student Aid. "Who is Considered a Parent?"

  5. Federal Student Aid. "Who is Included in the Student’s Household Size?"

  6. Federal Student Aid. "What is the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT)?"

  7. Federal Student Aid. "What Is a Federal School Code, and How Do I Find It?"

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