What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It is the form undergraduate and graduate students, and some parents, fill out each school year to qualify for financial aid from the United States government.

If you need financial aid to help to pay for college, filing a FAFSA is the first thing you should do.

Financial Aid You Can Get with the FAFSA

The FAFSA helps you secure federal financial aid, but it is also key to accessing non-federal aid opportunities such as state and school aid


Federal grants are awarded to students who show financial need or that fit certain other qualifications, such membership in the military. The most common grant you can get through the FAFSA is a Pell Grant.

State governments also look at your FAFSA to determine if you are eligible for grants and other state financial aid programs.

Non-profit and private grants may also request a copy of your FAFSA forms to help determine if you qualify.

Work-Study Jobs

What is the FAFSA going to do about work-study jobs? The federal work-study program is a school-administered program that provides part-time work to full and part time students. Work-study jobs can be on or off campus and tend to focus on employment related to your studies or civic education.

Federal Student Loans

There are three kinds of student loans you can get from the federal government.

  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans (also called an Unsubsidized Stafford loan)
  • Direct Subsidized Loans (also called a Subsidized Stafford Loan)
  • Direct Plus Loans

Scholarships and Merit Aid

While the FAFSA itself does not qualify you for federal scholarships, some schools require you to complete the FAFSA before they consider you for their college’s merit aid. Private and non-profit scholarships may also request your FAFSA as a part of their process.

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Who Should Fill Out FAFSA?

All undergraduate and graduate students should file a FAFSA for each year they are attending school, regardless of income. When people typically ask “What is the FAFSA?”, the clumsy way of describing it is typically “Free money”. The reality of it is a little more complex than that, having more to do with seeing what federal loans you could qualify for. However, one thing to keep in mind is that many people qualify for FAFSA and they don’t even know it, so make sure to fill yours out just in case.

Important FAFSA Definitions

Before you fill out the FAFSA, there’s a few key terms and phrases you should know. Let’s take a look.

  • FSA ID: The FSA ID is the username and password you will use to fill out and gain access to information related to your FAFSA information online.
  • Cost of Attendance (COA): Federal law requires all schools to provide an estimated average cost to attend their institution for one academic year. FAFSA uses your school’s COA to help determine your financial award.
  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC): The information you provide on FAFSA will be used to determine financial need, which is based on your expected family contribution to the cost of your education. Some factors that impact EFC include income, savings, investments, and number of people in your household.
  • Student Aid Report (SAR): Shortly after you file the FAFSA, you will be sent a Student Aid Report, which shows your EFC, the answers you provided on the application and provides space for you to make corrections.
  • Award Letter: Award letters are where you find out how much financial aid you qualify for and are usually distributed between February and April. They are sent by individual schools, so templates may vary.

Now that you know what the FAFSA is for and how it is used, take the next step: learn more about how to apply for the FAFSA and what the qualifications are for students who apply for the FAFSA.


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