Steps in the application process

There are several steps in the financial aid application process. Click to learn more about each one.


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Key Points

1. Get an application

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) uses to evaluate the family financial situation of every student who applies for financial aid. Schools often use information from the FAFSA to award state and institutional financial aid. Most high school counseling offices can provide you with a paper copy of the application, but to speed up the process complete the FAFSA online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.

2. Fill out the application

You can fill out a paper FAFSA application or apply online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. Filling it out usually takes some time and effort. Your parents or guardians need to fill in accurate financial information, similar to when they do their taxes. Divorced parents and blended families may need even more time to complete the application correctly. (For a list of items to have on hand before sitting down to fill out the FAFSA, click on Library.)

3. Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

Using the information on your FAFSA application, ED determines how much your family can afford to pay for your education. This is called the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. Based on your EFC and the cost of the school you plan to attend, they determine your eligibility for federal aid and loan programs.

4. Your Student Aid Report (SAR)

After ED determines your EFC, they either email or mail you a Student Aid Report, or SAR. Your parents or guardians should review the SAR carefully to confirm that the information is accurate. If not, they need to carefully make any needed corrections. ED will send your SAR data electronically to the educational institutions you listed on your FAFSA. This document is called your Institutional Student Information Record, or ISIR.

5. Compare financial aid packages

Every school has one or more financial aid officers whose job is to determine what aid you qualify for. Each school that accepts you for admission will mail (or email) you a letter that lists how much of each type of financial aid you’re eligible to receive. This list is called a financial aid package and may include federal loans, state loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. Review and compare the financial aid packages you receive, and pick the one school you want to attend.

6. Accept or decline each offer of aid

After you pick the one school you want to attend, sign the financial aid package they sent you and indicate whether you’re accepting or declining each offer of aid. You don’t have to accept everything. If you’re offered student loans, remember that after you graduate you’ll have to pay the money back! It’s a good idea to borrow only the amount you’ll need. As a general guideline, your monthly student loan payment should be less than 10% of the net monthly income you plan to earn after college.

Be careful! You may see ads or emails from companies who “guarantee” you financial aid if you pay them a fee. A lot of these are scams. You shouldn’t have to pay to qualify for financial aid.
If you want financial aid (grants, work-study, loans), completing the FAFSA is a must. Click the Next button to learn more.
Katie needs the cash Prepare yourself Your action plan & timeline Steps in the application process Apply for financial aid! Compare two financial aid packages