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How to Get Free Money for College [Ultimate FAFSA Guide]

Get Free Money for College.

It seems almost too good to be true.

However, thanks to Uncle Sam, getting free money to attend the college of your choice is a reality.

How to get free money for college?

The department of education offers students a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that gives you the opportunity to access Federal student loans, grants, scholarships, work-study programs and more to finance your entire college studies.

One thing to keep in mind…

FAFSA applications open each year on 1 October for the next school year and close 30 June of the school year for which you are applying.

(FAFSA Applications for the 2019-20 school years opened October 1st 2018.)

So, if you want to fill out a FAFSA, you need to get started ahead of time.

That is why:

Completing the FAFSA should be one of your first steps when preparing for college.

The problem is…

The FAFSA is a monster of a form that takes preparation and serious focus. If you make a mistake on the form, it can delay the entire process, and you can risk missing out.

That’s why we’ve created this simple step by step walkthrough to help you fill out the FAFSA and learn what to expect after submitting it to the department of education.

So, let’s get started.

Getting Started: Your Federal Student Aid ID

Before you can start the FAFSA, you will need to create a Federal Student Aid ID.

This is a username and password allowing you access to the FAFSA and to manage your financial aid profile in the future.

(Like keeping an eye on outstanding student loan balances and repayments after graduation.)


If you’re a dependent student, a parent will need to use their Federal Student ID number on your FAFSA.

Creating an FSA ID is straightforward.

It’s as easy as making a Facebook account. All you need is an email, username, and password. The FSA website also has instructions in case you get stuck.

FAFSA Student Financing Options

Before we move on to how to submit a FAFSA, let’s talk about what a FAFSA can do for you. A FAFSA is a single form that provides you access to multiple study financing options.


  • Grants and scholarships: Grants and scholarships are what we consider “free money.” Because, in most cases, you don’t need to pay them back (unless you withdraw from school). The difference between a scholarship and a grant is that a grant is ordinarily need-based aid, whereas a scholarship is merit-based.
  • Student loans: Student loans accessed through a FAFSA are commonly Federally funded. There are different types of student loans. Some, where the funds are given directly to the student, and others which are provided to both the parents and graduate students. Although Federal level loans are the most common, Certain states also have loan programs, and there are many private student loan schemes available too.
  • Work-study: Work study is a financing option that offers students the ability to receive need-based aid to supplement approved income earned while studying.

Filling out the FAFSA

Get Organized: Collect all the necessary documents

Make sure you have everything before getting started.

It makes the whole thing more manageable. But, what exactly do you need to fill out a FAFSA?

Here’s a quick checklist:

Are you a U.S. citizen dependent student? If so, you’ll need your:

Social Security Card
driver’s license (if any)
Parents’ Federal Income Tax Return
Parents’ Previous Years’ W-2 forms
Parents’ bank statements
Parents’ untaxed income records
Parents’ current business and investment records
Previous Years’ W-2 forms
Previous Years’ Federal Income Tax Return
Previous Years’ untaxed income records
Bank statements (current)

NOTE: Previous year’s tax info means, say you’re applying in 2018 for student aid in 2020. You would include your 2017 tax returns and W-2 forms in your FAFSA.

Whereas if it’s 2019 and you’re applying for 2020-21 financial aid, you’d supply your 2018 Tax and income forms.

Are you a U.S. citizen independent student? Then, you’ll need your:

Social Security Card
driver’s license (if any)
Previous Years’ W-2 forms
Previous Years’ Federal Income Tax Return
Previous Years’ untaxed income records
Current bank statements

Are you a non-U.S. citizen dependent student? In that case, you’ll require your:

Driver’s license
Previous Years’ W-2 forms
Previous Years’ Federal Income Tax Return
Previous Years’ untaxed income records
Current bank statements
Parents’ Federal Income Tax Return
Parents’ Previous Years’ W-2 forms
Parents’ bank statements
Parents’ untaxed income records
Parents’ current business and investment records

If you are a non-U.S. citizen independent student, you’ll need your:

Driver’s license (if any)
Previous Years’ W-2 forms
Previous Years’ Federal Income Tax Return
Previous Years’ untaxed income records
Current bank statements

Family Circumstances

Your family’s particular circumstances is a significant factor that impacts the information you will need to prepare and what to put in your FAFSA.

Here are some different family circumstances and a summary of what you will need to keep in mind for each:

Are your Parents Married? 

If so, in step 4, select “married” and make sure to include income details from both of your parents in the FAFSA.

Are your Parents Divorced?

You will need to determine which of your parents is your custodial parent. This is usually the parent you spend the most time with.

When filling out the FAFSA, use your custodial parent’s income information. If you have a step-parent, include their income as well.

Special note: Child support or alimony paid to your custodial parent should be included in their total income.

However, when asking about your parents’ level of education, the FAFSA means your biological parents, not your step parents.

Were your parents never married?

If so, select “single” in step 4. Then, determine which of your parents is your custodian. This is often the parent with the highest income.

Fill out the FAFSA with only your custodial parent’s income details. You should not include the other parent’s (non-custodian) details.

If you do receive any money from your non-custodian parent, add it under untaxed income.

Do you live with legal guardians of foster parents?

If so, select “yes” in step 3, for possibly appropriate questions like number 52, or 54.

Skip step 4. Only include your income details in the FAFSA.

In case you receive any financial support from your legal guardians, include it in the Worksheet B as personal income.


Get in touch with your chosen school’s Financial aid office to see if they have any specific requirements or protocols for your situation.

Are your parents, same-sex partners?

Same-sex partners are the same as heterosexual partners. If you have same-sex parents, you will treat this the same as any other couple. If they are married, state so. If they never married, select single.

There is one difference though; you will need to distinguish between your step-parent and your legal parent.

Also, if your parents are same-sex, list both their income in the FAFSA.

Do you qualify for a Dependency Override?

In certain cases it can be unsuitable to include a parent’s financial information.

For example, if they are incarcerated or institutionalized. In this event, a university can grant what is called a “dependency override” to the student.

This means that their parents’ financial information will be disregarded for the FAFSA.

Don’t know your parents’ whereabouts?

Another situation that allows for your parents’ financial information to be disregarded for a FAFSA is if you do not know their whereabouts, as this makes their financial situation irrelevant to your application.

Do you have an abusive or neglectful parent?

Having a neglectful or abusive parent can also qualify you for a dependency override from your selected university and would allow you to disregard your parent’s financial information for the FAFSA.

Are You Legally Emancipated?

If so, then select “yes” in step 4, question 53 and you may skip section 4.


If you do receive income from a legal guardian or foster parent, do include it in Worksheet B as personal income.

We also recommend contacting your chosen university to discuss your situation to see if they have any specific protocols in place.

Special Immigration Status

Are you an undocumented immigrant?

If you are an undocumented immigrant, you aren’t eligible to receive for Federal funding.


The good news is that certain universities may still provide you with financial aid.

In fact:

Certain individual schools have financial aid especially set aside for undocumented immigrants.

If this pertains to your situation, do not fill out a FAFSA until you have first spoken with your chosen school.

They will provide guidance as to whether they would like you to complete a FAFSA or whether you should use other methods to apply for their aid programs.

Are you a  U.S. citizen, but either of your parents are undocumented immigrants?

If you are a US citizen but your parents are undocumented immigrants, you can still complete the FAFSA using your parents’ financial information.

However, when the FAFSA asks for your either of your parent’s social security numbers, enter 000-00-0000.

(This is standard practice when filling out such forms that require a social security number when the individual doesn’t have one.)


Similarly to other individual cases, make sure to contact your chosen school to discuss your situation and find out if there’s anything you need to do for your particular status.

Time Saving Tip: Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool

Filling out a FASA can be time-consuming, plus the last thing you want is to make a mistake when filling out your financial data.

That’s why we suggest using the IRS Data Retrieval tool. This helps you collect and import accurate financial data directly and quickly.

Here’s how you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool:

Once you reach the financial info section of the FAFSA application, click the link that says “Link to IRS.” Then, the form will automatically prefill all the necessary financial information for you.

Easy, right?

Never Lie on the FAFSA: It’s not Worth it.

An important side note while we’re on the topic.

The FAFSA is an application provided to you by the US government.

Even if you think that bending the truth may give you better chances at getting funding, don’t do it.

If the Department of Education catches you lying on the FAFSA, you could face fines of up to $20,000 and even up to five years in jail.

On top of that, if you already received aid through your fraudulent activity and started school by the time you were caught, you would be expelled and required to pay back the entire amount received.

Certainly not worth it.

Where to study?: List the Colleges of your choice

The FAFSA application will allow you to enter the school codes for up to 10 colleges or universities.

If you don’t know your schools’ code, that’s ok. The codes are easy to find using the application’s search box.

(quick note, if you complete the FAFSA application offline, you’ll be limited to 4 schools) 

Alternatively, you can find the school codes you’re looking for on the Federal Student Aid Website.

When you submit a school in your FAFSA application, this also provides the school access to your data for assessing your eligibility to their financial aid programs.

What about if you aren’t sure where to study yet?

Not to worry, if you want to change your mind later, you can use your FSA ID to login to the FAFSA and edit your chosen schools at a later date.

What’s next?

Click Submit!

What to do after submitting your FAFSA?

That’s right. Just because you clicked submit doesn’t mean you’re done. But, you’re almost there!

There are just a few more things to do after submitting your FAFSA application.


Additional Forms: Do You Need Anything Special?

Depending on your State and schools chosen, you may need to fill out additional financial aid information.

Some colleges require this extra info for their private scholarship or grant programs.


Some States have a financial application which can vary from the FAFSA.

Make sure to complete any additional forms or requirements as soon as possible, so you don’t run the risk of delaying your FAFSA’s assessment.

Check the Results: Review your FAFSA Report

Within 3-21 days of submitting your FAFSA form, you will receive a Student Aid Report, either by email or post.

This report summarizes all the information you provided in your FAFSA application.

Make sure to go through and check that all the information in this report is correct.

The report will let you know if something was missing from your FAFSA application and what you need to provide to complete it.

If anything is missing, or if you find an error, you’ll need to go back and make any necessary corrections.

You can do this by logging back into FAFSA with your ID and clicking on the “corrections” link.

Once done, your FAFSA will be re-submitted.

Aid Assessment Report

Your FAFSA report will include details of your EFC or expected family contribution.

This is an estimate of how much your family can pay out of their own pockets for your education and how much supplementary financial aid you are qualified to receive.

Here’s how it works:

Let’s say their calculations show that your family can afford to pay $3,000 towards your tuition, but the entire tuition for your chosen school is $20,000…

… Then you will be eligible for needs-based aid to the value of $20,000 – $3,000 = $17,000.

Bear in mind, regardless of your eligibility for need-based programs; you can still be eligible for non-need-based aid programs

Information Verification: Provide supporting documentation.

There’s a chance that you may be contacted by your chosen college and asked to provide supporting documentation to verify the information contained in your FAFSA.

This is a standard procedure for many schools and is often done at random.

So, there’s nothing to worry about.

Merely provide the supporting evidence you used to fill out the FAFSA to verify the information in your application.

Awards Packages: Selecting from your Finance options.

Now it’s time to choose!

Generally, around about Springtime, you’ll start receiving college acceptance letters from your chosen schools.

When this happens…

You’ll also receive a financial aid award letter from each school that accepted your application.

Depending on your particular financial circumstances, these award letters may or may not have a mix of need-based and non-need based aid options from the Federal and State level and even from the school itself.

One thing to keep in mind though…

Just because you have been approved for a loan or financial aid, doesn’t mean you need to accept it.

Make sure to think things through first.

Any loan you accept comes at a price. So, we recommend taking any available scholarships and grants before considering the loan options.

If you decide to take out a student loan, only take what you need. Because, one day, you’ll have to pay every penny back.

The less you take now, the less you pay later.

Yearly Reminder: Renew your FAFSA

Before we finish up…

You will need to complete a FAFSA form for each year you would like to receive financial aid.

The good news is that after the first time, you can use the renewal FAFSA instead of doing the entire process over again.

But of course, if your financial situation has changed significantly, you can start a new application from scratch.

Good luck with your application and studies!

Maite HalleyHow to Get Free Money for College [Ultimate FAFSA Guide]