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The FAFSA is the Federal Application For Student Aid, and it's your starting point for everything from scholarships to student loans. While you don't have to fill out the FAFSA to go to college, it's unlikely that you'll receive financial assistance without doing so. In spite of the name, the FAFSA is actually used to determine eligibility for most types of public aid, not just that from the federal government. Even if you don't qualify for need-based assistance, you may be eligible for unsubsidized student loans. Fill it out as soon as possible for the maximum amount of aid.
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When Should I Apply to College?
A good time to start sending out applications for college is fall semester of your senior year. Most application deadlines fall between February and May; by starting early, you avoid rushing at the last-minute to meet the deadline. 'Apply by' dates vary wildly, but more competitive programs are likely to have earlier deadlines; be sure to double-check and then apply for the programs with earlier deadlines first. Some schools may also offer an early decision, so you might be able to get into your first-choice school before the regular deadlines.
If this is your first time applying, particularly if you haven't done a lot of writing, allow for more time than you think you'll need; the application essay can be very important in determining whether you are accepted, and deserves a thoughtful response.
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When Should I Fill Out the FAFSA?
In general, you should complete the FAFSA as close to the beginning of the year as possible, for every year in which you plan to attend college that fall. The FAFSA can be submitted on the web from the beginning of January through the end of June, but the earlier you submit it, the better your chances of finding financial aid. Depending on your age and other factors, you'll need to know either your own or your parent's tax information. The government uses this to determine your expected family contribution and thus, how much aid you should need to attend school. Information you'll need to complete the form includes the number of people in your family and how many of them are attending college, your (or more likely, your parents') income, and non-retirement assets.
A new FAFSA should be filed every year, but the system will remember your information from one year to the next. If you file your FAFSA online, not only will it be much faster than sending in a paper form, but most of the information will be prefilled - just don't lose your PIN! You'll just need to note any information that has changed, as well as filling out the current year's tax information.
After your FAFSA is processed, you'll receive a SAR - Student Aid Report. Check it over carefully for errors; you can make corrections online using your PIN. You can also view and print your SAR from the FAFSA website once it is available; the government recommends checking the status of your application one week after submission if you signed it with a PIN or 2-3 weeks after submission if you mailed in a signature page.
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Things to Remember
- Don't rush! You generally only one chance at applying for your preferred college; don't mess it up by trying to take care of everything in an afternoon!
- Financial aid is available for almost everyone, but it can take some work to find it. Filling out the FAFSA is only the first step!
- Re-apply for financial aid every year; even if you didn't qualify before, conditions change, both in your personal situation and in the amount and type of aid available.
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