Michelle Showalter, Scholarship America

Wondering how you'll pay for college?

Start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If you don't, it could cost you thousands in grants, work-study, low-interest federal loans -- and need-based scholarships.

Filling out the FAFSA is the most important thing you can do to get your hands on need-based money to pay for college. The vast majority of students who fill out the FAFSA are eligible for some sort of federal financial aid.

Filling out the FAFSA can be somewhat complicated.

But don't let that deter you from applying. Instead, lower your stress level by taking heed of the following advice.

1. Use one of three means to submit your FAFSA

You can submit online, via a printable PDF, or using a paper FAFSA form. More than 98 percent of FAFSA applications are submitted online. We recommend filling out the online version of the FAFSA for three reasons:

-- There's a built-in guide to help you complete the application.

-- "Skip logic" automatically skips questions that aren't applicable to you.

-- The schools that you wish to receive your FAFSA information will get results faster.

If you decide to apply online, make sure you go to the right website: The official FAFSA website is www.FAFSA.gov. Remember, you should never pay to submit your FAFSA.

If you'd rather not submit your FAFSA online, download a PDF copy at www.studentaid.ed.gov/PDFfafsa or call 1-800-4-FED-AID to request that a paper copy be mailed to you.

2. Apply for a Personal Identification Number (PIN)

You can use your PIN to electronically sign your FAFSA online. This is the fastest way to submit your form. If you're a dependent, at least one of your parents will also need to apply for a PIN to sign the FAFSA electronically. To apply for a PIN, visit www.pin.ed.gov.

You can use your PIN immediately to sign your FAFSA. You can also use your PIN to access your Student Aid Report online, make corrections to your FAFSA, or complete a FAFSA renewal next year (you'll just need to wait up to three days after issuance for verification of your name, date of birth, and Social Security number by the Social Security Administration).

Tip: Hang on to your PIN! You'll need it in the future.

3. Complete the "FAFSA on the Web" worksheet

For efficiency's sake, sit down (with your parents, if you're a dependent) and gather all of the necessary documents before filling out your FAFSA. Use the "FAFSA on the Web" worksheet to help you get organized.

Tip: To determine whether or not you're a dependent, visit this website: https://fafsa.ed.gov/fotw1011/help/fftoc01k.htm.

You won't be submitting this worksheet; it's simply an organizational tool to make filling out the FAFSA easier. The worksheet will ask you and/or your parents for information like your Social Security number, driver's license number, federal tax information for the year leading up to your application year, records of untaxed information, and assets like savings, investments, and business assets. After you fill out the worksheet, you'll be ready to sit down at your computer to insert all the information quickly.

4. Fill out your FAFSA

You'll be given the opportunity to pre-fill the application with information you've entered previously, if you've completed a FAFSA in the past. Otherwise, complete sections 1 through 4 using your "FAFSA on the Web" worksheet; this should make filling out the FAFSA fast and easy!

5. Find identification numbers

Where do you plan on applying to college? Make sure you gather all of the identification numbers for those schools (found on the FAFSA website) so your FAFSA results will be automatically sent to those colleges.

6. Calculate total earnings and tax return amounts

If you're filling out the FAFSA online, the online application will automatically calculate your total applicable earnings and tax return amounts. If you're using a paper form, you'll need to calculate this by hand.

7. Follow the directions

See the directions on the website for online submission, or mail in your paper application to the appropriate address listed on your application.

After your application has been processed, your FAFSA results will be submitted to the schools to which you're applying. Colleges will use your results to determine your remaining financial need and whether you qualify for any need-based scholarships.


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Financial Aid 101: Fill Out the FAFSA - College Financial Aid Tips