Ship-Ship-Hooray! Free Shipping on $25+ Details >

FAFSA Application 101: Demystifying the Financial Aid Process

in   •  
FAFSA Application - What You Need to Apply for Financial AidShannon Vasconcelos says there is one thing she wants you to get rid of before you sit down at the kitchen table to complete the FAFSA application: your fear.

As the Director of College Finance at College Coach, and as a former financial aid officer at Boston University and Tufts University, Vasconcelos has helped thousands of families manage – and mitigate – the inevitable “intimidation factor” that comes with applying to and financing college.

“Applying for financial aid can be complicated,” Vasconcelos says. "But if you know what to expect – what your options are, what you need to do, and when you need to do it by – you can get through the process without a whole lot of stress.”

“The more prepared a family is, the less intimidating the process ends up being,” says Vasconcelos. “My favorite part of my job is educating families about the college finance process – what steps they need to take and what the colleges are doing behind the scenes – to remove much of fear of the unknown."

It all starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which is run by U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Aid (FSA) office. The good news is it’s free to apply, and the few hours you spend gathering your paperwork is worth it: the FSA doles out about $150 billion in student financial aid every year.

With FAFSA applications opening up October 1st, we sat down with Vasconcelos to mine her 16 years of experience in financial aid.

Q: Why is it so important for students to apply as soon as possible after October 1?
A: Some colleges operate on a first come, first served basis when it comes to some of their funding, and these colleges may become less generous with financial aid even before their deadline passes. That is why I recommend to most students that they try to complete their financial aid application by, ideally, the end of October.

Q: What are the biggest changes to the FAFSA application for the 2018-2019 academic year?
A: Due to a security breach during last year’s application cycle, applicants’ income data imported through the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) will be hidden from the applicant. Not being able to see the income data you’re reporting may cause anxiety for applicants, but utilization of the IRS DRT remains the easiest and most accurate way to complete your application. Manually entering your information leaves room for error and makes it more likely your application will be selected for verification, meaning your application will be held up until you document your income data.

FAFSA_Application_Inforgraphic_What_You_Need_to_Apply_for_Financial_Aid_Textbookscom_blogQ: What will students and parents need when they sit down to apply for FAFSA?
A: An FSA ID for both the student and one parent, the list of schools you’re applying to, your Social Security number, your Alien Registration number (if applicable), your driver’s license number, copies of tax returns and W-2s for both the student and parents, and any applicable bank or investment account statements.

[Check out our Everything You Need to Apply for FAFSA infographic. ]

Q: What assets do not need to be reported?
A: The family’s home equity, their retirement accounts, and any small, family-owned businesses. For students whose parents are divorced, separated, or were never married, the FAFSA only asks for the financial information of the custodial household, defined as who the student lives with the majority of the time. The student’s non-custodial parent’s information is not considered by most colleges.

Q: What are biggest mistakes people make when applying for student financial aid?
A: While the FAFSA is the only financial aid application requirement at most colleges, there are some colleges that have additional requirements. Many private colleges require an additional form called the CSS Profile. Some will request copies of tax returns or other financial documentation. Students are not necessarily “done” when they click submit on the FAFSA. Make sure they check the college websites for all requirements, and follow up on any additional requests from college aid offices in a timely manner.

This blog post lists my top 10 FAFSA mistakes. Of these, I’d say (2) applying late, (9) missing additional application requirements, and (10) not applying at all would be the biggest mistakes.

Q: Once all paperwork is gathered, what can students expect from the online application process? About how does it take to complete? Can they save a “draft” and go back and finish if necessary?
A: The FAFSA should take no more than an hour to complete. If you get interrupted, you can save your progress at any point and return later to complete. Both the student and one parent will have to e-sign the FAFSA with an FSA ID to submit.

Q: What happens next?
A: Within a few days of submitting their FAFSA, the student will receive an email with a link to their Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR is a summary of all of the data they entered on the FAFSA, which should be checked over for mistakes. If you notice an error, you can easily log back into your FAFSA, correct the error, and re-submit the FAFSA. The SAR will also alert the student to any issues with their submission, such as a mismatch of Social Security numbers or citizenship information that need to be followed up on.

The colleges that the student has listed on the FAFSA will also receive the student’s information at that point. The financial aid offices will review the form and may request additional information if needed. The college aid offices will determine the student’s eligibility for any federal, state, and institutional aid, and will notify the student of that eligibility.

Q: And what’s the timeline for hearing back?
A: Timelines for hearing from the schools can be all over the map, depending on the college’s schedule, when the student applied, and whether the student applied through an Early Action, Early Decision, or Regular Decision process. Financial aid notifications for incoming freshmen are usually sent out first, generally between December and March, and awards for returning students tend to come later on in the spring.

Q: What do you recommend in terms of loans and scholarships, if a student doesn’t receive enough aid to cover expenses?
A: I recommend looking into the college’s monthly payment plan before borrowing. Payment plans generally do not charge interest, so are much less expensive than a student loan. If you do have to borrow, take a look at the federal loans first ( They tend to have competitive interest rates, flexible repayment options, and protections built in, such as cancellation in the event of death or permanent disability.

My favorite scholarship search site is, though students should be aware that scholarships you find online tend to be very competitive (because everyone is finding the same scholarships online). Students should also check in with high school guidance counselors, community groups, places of worship, employers, and parents’ employers for additional scholarship opportunities.

Visit for more information about FAFSA, financial aid, and applying to college.

How to Decipher Your Financial Aid Award Letter

Financial Aid Award Letter >>


Financial Aid Primer >>

Do You Qualify for Student Loan Forgiveness?

Do You Qualify for
Student Loan Forgiveness? >>