As you prepare to attend college, you might wonder what your options are to pay for tuition and other expenses. Federal student aid and loans are available to those who qualify. To find out what you’re eligible for, you need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). If you have questions about filling out the FAFSA® or what happens next, you’re not alone.

Who is Eligible for Financial Aid?

To qualify for financial aid, you must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen
  • Have a valid social security number (citizens of certain countries are exempt)
  • Complete high school or the GED
  • Be enrolled in an eligible college or university program as a student
  • Register with the Selective Service System, if applicable
  • Not hold any convictions for possession or sale of illegal drugs
  • Maintain progress in your educational program

Anyone who meets these requirements can apply for federal financial aid. You will need to provide information about yourself and your parents if you’re under age 24.

What Do I Need to Fill Out the FAFSA®?

Before you start filling out the form, gather the documents with the information you’ll need to fill out each section accurately. You’ll need your social security number (or alien registration number) to get a FAFSA® ID. You also need to report financial information, so gather your tax income documents, W-2 forms, and bank statements. If you’re under age 24, you’ll need those documents from your parents as well. You have to file a new FAFSA® every year, so keep track of your FAFSA® ID and important documents for the future.

What If My High School Isn’t on the List?

If you can’t find your high school on the list when filling out the FAFSA®, it may be that fewer than five students from the high school have included the information in the past. Another reason is that your high school is listed under another name. Students report the names of their schools when filling out the application. Therefore, if multiple people write the name incorrectly, you’ll see that incorrect format when you search for the school. Try searching for different spellings and variants, along with the city and state where the school is located to see if you can find it.

What Kind of Aid is Available?

You can qualify for federal grants and loans, depending on your financial situation as well as the situation of your family. The federal government manages federal loans, and these are categorized as direct, Direct PLUS, and Perkins. If you qualify for grants, you may not have to pay the funds back to the government. Federal loans do require repayment, although the interest rate and terms are often more generous than what you’ll get through a private loan.

How Much Money Can I Get?

After you complete and submit the FAFSA®, you’ll get the Student Aid Report, which includes all information you included on your FAFSA®. Make sure the information is correct since this is sent to the schools to which you apply. First-time applicants usually get the information back by mid-April, while returning students will get theirs as late as June.

The schools that accept you will create financial aid packages depending on your situation. These packages could include a mix of grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study jobs to help you pay for college. The total amount that you qualify for will depend on the costs of tuition, room and board, books, and other necessities at each individual school.

If My Family’s Income is Too High for a Pell Grant, Should I Fill Out the FAFSA®?

Even if you won’t qualify for a Pell grant, filling out the FAFSA® is worthwhile. To be eligible for certain scholarships, federal Stafford loans, federal work-study opportunities, and Parent PLUS loans, you must complete the FAFSA®. You will never qualify for student financial aid if you don’t try, so make sure to set aside time to fill out the application before you rule out your eligibility.

My Parents Are Divorced; Whose Information Should I Use?

You should use the information of the parent with whom you have lived with the most in the past 12 months. If you split your time evenly between your parents, you should include the information for the parent who provided more financial support. If either of your parents has remarried, you will need to include financial information for your stepparent if he or she is married to your custodial parent or the parent who provides more of your financial support.

When Do I Have to Pay It Back?

You’ll learn more about repayment terms in your financial aid package of information. Most federal loans allow a grace period of six to nine months after you graduate to start paying back the money. You will likely have to pay back the total within 10 years, although you can negotiate this if needed.

What Are the Most Common Mistakes on the FAFSA®?

The most common mistake students make when filling out the FAFSA® is leaving a space blank. If the question does not apply or the answer is zero, make sure to fill in the box with “N/A” or “0” to avoid errors. If you skip a question, the reviewer will assume you made a mistake and missed a question.

Another common error is forgetting to include all sources of income. In addition to any money you or your parents earn at work, the FAFSA® also requires you to list sources of untaxed income. Examples include social security, workers’ compensation, disability, and child support.

When you calculate the size of the household, don’t forget to include yourself. Another common mistake is forgetting to sign the application. You will have to sign, along with your parents if you are including their information on the application. Make sure to keep track of dates and deadlines so you don’t turn in your FAFSA® too late. When you miss a deadline, you may not receive federal aid until the following semester.

Understanding the FAFSA® makes it easier to apply for financial aid so you can fulfill your dream of graduating from college.

Good luck!