How to Apply for Financial Aid in the Early FAFSA Era

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The “early” FAFSA was online beginning October 1, 2020, for the 2021-22 academic year. When the October availability date was first introduced starting with the 2017-18 academic year, some colleges had considered moving up their financial aid application deadlines, which prompted the Department of Education to request such a move not be undertaken. Another change that was introduced was the prior-prior-year concept: using the tax return from an earlier year when filing the FAFSA. Whether this is your first or last time completing the FAFSA, here are the basic steps you will need to take.

1. Check Your Deadlines

Look at the individual website for each college you are applying to and make sure that you know their exact financial aid application deadline. Allow yourself about a week to 10 days before that date and set your personal FAFSA deadlines.

2. Determine Whether You Are a Dependent Student

The Office of U.S. Department of Education website, Federal Student Aid, has guidelines which help you determine whether you are a dependent or independent student. An independent student provides only their own financial information, while a dependent student provides the parents’ information as well.

3. Get a FSA ID

This is your passport to online financial aid information and your electronic signature for the FAFSA. Get it now so you are one step ahead in the process. If a dependent student and a parent or parents are both providing FAFSA information, each will need a separate FSA ID.

4. Gather Information

Make sure you have all your documentation in order before you begin to fill out the form so you won’t have to start and stop once you start the application.

5. Get Started

When you are ready to begin, visit and click on the button to start a new FAFSA form. Technically, the student is the one who is completing the form, although in reality this job is usually completed by the parents. When it initially asks for name, address and financial information, that is for the student. There is a separate section for the parents to provide their information.

6. Enter the Site

If you are the student, click on “I am the student” on the left of the screen, enter your FSA ID username and password, and click “Next.” If you are the parent, click “I am a parent, preparer, or student from a Freely Associated State” on the right of the screen, then provide the student’s name, Social Security number, and date of birth, and click “Next.”

7. Create a Save Key

If the student and parents will share information, you will need to create a save key. This is a temporary password that allows you to “pass” the FAFSA back and forth. It also allows you to save the FAFSA and return to it later.

8. Enter Your Personal Information

Enter the student’s personal information exactly as it appears on their Social Security card.

9. Add Colleges

You can ask to have your information sent to up to 10 colleges. There is no charge for this, but you might have to pay a fee when you submit an actual admissions application to each of your colleges. If you have more than 10 schools on your list, you can go back and drop/add institutions at a later point. Just make sure those you are taking off the list have received your information. You might also have to go back and add them at a later point if any of your information changes.

10. Parents

There are very specific guidelines as to which parent is required to provide financial information. You cannot just say that you live with one or the other, or grandparents, unless you meet those requirements.

11. Sign and Submit

Your application is not complete until it has been signed by the student and the parents. This can be done electronically using the FSA ID. 

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  1. Federal Student Aid. "The FAFSA Process."

  2. National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. "Letter From the Undersecretary."

  3. Federal Student Aid. "College Students and Parents: What You Need to Know About the 2017–18 FAFSA®."

  4. Federal Student Aid. "Dependency Status."

  5. U.S. Department of Education. "Why Students and Parents Need Their Own FSA IDs."

  6. Federal Student Aid. "If I Want to Apply to More Than Ten Colleges, What Should I Do?"

  7. Federal Student Aid. "How Do I Sign My FAFSA® Form?"

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