Basic Guide to the FAFSA

Basic Guide to the FAFSA

At this point, you’ve probably heard of the FAFSA.

But, why does it matter? What do you need to have available when you fill it out? We’re sharing with you a basic guide to answer common questions and prevent you from getting started without having all the information needed to finish.


FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It determines all federal and local loan awards, as well as nearly all financial aid awards for college. The application is used to determine the dollar amount that you or your family is expected to contribute in tuition towards college or graduate school. Students requesting financial aid must fill out the application each year that they wish to receive aid.


The FAFSA is available online at We strongly suggest filling out the application online because the website will immediately alert you of any errors before submission, and your request will be received much sooner. If you still want to fill out a paper copy, those are available, too.


  • Your social security card
  • Your driver’s license (if you have one)
  • You/your parents’ W-2 forms from the previous year, as well as other records of money earned (if there are any others)
  • You/your parents’ Federal Income tax return from the previous year
  • You/your parents’ current bank statements
  • You/your parents’ current investment records, if any
  • Your alien registration or permanent resident card (if you are not an American citizen)

You may run into some logistical issues when obtaining some of this information. Please note that if your parents are divorced, the parent who provided the most financial support or with whom you lived the majority of the time should be the one filling out the FAFSA. If your parents never married, this also applies to you. There are many circumstances that the FAFSA details on their website with corresponding instructions, which may be applicable to you and your family situation.


  • Information about the student
  • Information about the student’s dependency status
  • Information about the student’s finances
  • Information about the student’s parents
  • Information about the parents’ finances
  • A list of schools that should receive the results of the FAFSA (list them alphabetically, or else schools will see how you rank them!)

Step 1: Student Information

  • Contact information, birthday, driver’s license, and social security number
  • Citizenship status and state of residence
  • Marital status
  • Selective service (for males over the age of 18)
  • Drug convictions or eligibility
  • Parents’ education levels
  • High school information
  • Work study

Step 2: Student Financial Information

  • Tax information from the previous year
  • Earnings from the previous year

Step 3: Dependency Status

  • Age (you will be considered a dependent unless you are over 24 or if you have an extenuating circumstance, details on which can be found on the FAFSA site)
  • Marital status
  • School level
  • Military service
  • Children
  • Living situation

Step 4: Parent Information

  • Legal name
  • Marital status
  • Social security number
  • Residency
  • Household information (number of people in the household, income, etc.)
  • Tax information from the previous year
  • Financial information (such as earnings, gifted money, alimony, etc.) from the previous year

Step 5: Student Household

  • This information is only valid if the student is NOT considered a dependent. This will not be the case for most students.

Step 6: Colleges

  • You may list up to four schools at a time.
  • You may list up to 10 schools if you call the Federal Student Aid Information Center.
  • You can find the appropriate school codes online at or by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID.
  • Remember to list these schools alphabetically—you don’t need to show a school that you added them last.

Step 7: Sign

  • On the paper form, you will just need to sign your name.
  • On the web form, you will have to register for a federal PIN at
  • Keep this PIN somewhere accessible, because you will need it each year to sign your FAFSA and to check the status of your application.

Common FAFSA Mistakes

Inaccurate information

  • Be sure to carefully review all of your information.
  • No lying—you must be entirely honest about every answer.
  • If you use estimates for your tax information, be sure to update those numbers once you formally submit your taxes.
  • Keep an eye on what section you’re filling out—don’t put parent information in the student section or vice versa!

Blank answers

  • Never leave an answer blank! Put 0 or ‘not applicable’ instead.

Our basic guide to the FAFSA is just that—basic. The FAFSA site offers much more in-depth help, including tutorials and many other great resources. We have confidence that this will help you get started!

Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.