How to Fill Out the FAFSA

College can be expensive, and most of us look to financial aid to pay for education. Early and correct submission of the FAFSA form can help your students afford college. Bring the FAFSA application into the classroom with these ideas.


What is FAFSA?

FAFSA image

Image via Flickr by The Bent Tree

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form determines how much federal-based student aid each applicant can receive. Aid may include grants, Stafford loans, PLUS loans, and campus-based assistance, including work-study and scholarships. Some of the loans must be repaid, but grants do not require payback. Aid is awarded based on need, determined via the financial information provided on the FAFSA form. Some students and parents use the FAFSA to determine if they will be able to afford the college or university of their choice. As Liora Chessin, program manager of Alabama Possible, indicates, 90 percent of students who complete the FAFSA pursue higher education.

Though the task of completing a FAFSA form is daunting, and the odds seem limited, the aid program is said to award $150 billion in student assistance each year. The Federal Student Aid office of the U.S. Department of Education reports that the average time to complete a FAFSA form is as low as 30 minutes. The good news is that most students will receive financial aid for college, which means every student should complete the form, regardless of how much money that their parents earn. With proper planning, students can make completing the FAFSA a short and profitable venture.

  1. Obtaining a PIN: Students will need to obtain a PIN before creating a FAFSA form. Turning this into an in-class activity encourages students to set one up and take the first step toward completing the FAFSA.
  2. Knowing When to File:  Since each school has its own FAFSA deadline, make sure students have thoroughly researched the appropriate deadlines. The form is not available until January 1, so an in-class FAFSA workshop will be best suited for January to allow students ample time to submit.
  3. Gathering Necessary Information: Students will need their social security number or alien registration number; their parents’ federal tax returns; any records of untaxed income or parents’ personal investments (not including their house); and cash, savings, and checking account balances. Parents may not feel comfortable with their child bringing this information to school, so this portion of the planning process may simply need to be a class discussion and checklist development process. Emphasize that while corrections can be made, errors can delay or interrupt the processing of their FAFSA form. Discussing common errors and how to prevent them helps students identify things for which they should particularly watch.
  4. Understanding Each Part: The FAFSA form includes about 100 questions broken into sections regarding the student’s personal information, background, income and assets, and their status as a dependent; their parents’ personal information, tax filing status, and income and assets; and the list of colleges that the student wishes to attend. In the student information section, male students will be asked to register for selective service; this may be a good time to discuss that program with them. If they don’t register, male students might be ineligible for aid.
  5. Learning What Happens Next: Once the student’s FAFSA is processed, they will receive a Student Aid Report outlining how much their family is expected to pay and how much aid that they will receive. Use this tool as a lesson in comparing costs to aid, determining how much to borrow, and how to pay that money back. This is a great time for students to learn more about loans and how they work using real numbers and real-life examples.
  6. Determining a Contingency Plan: Both need and merit determine financial aid, meaning that students can access additional funding regardless of their economic situation or academic achievements. While the outlook for getting aid is good, some students may need to explore additional financial aid opportunities. Scholarship search engines can help students identify target scholarships and the materials required to obtain them. The scholarship application process can work well as a systematic lesson, or an essay writing lesson if the application requires an essay.

Making FAFSA Educational

FAFSA doesn’t have to be a mystical form that students will never understand. Students can make better sense of the form, as well as the impacts of receiving financial aid, when the form becomes part of a lesson plan.

  1. Practice Makes Perfect: Practice FAFSA forms can help students understand the process before they actually submit the form. Approaching the form for the first time can be scary, so a bit of preparation with the questions can help ease their fears when they complete their actual FAFSA form.
  2. FAFSA Scavenger Hunt: The above section indicates the importance of FAFSA, but perhaps you want students to discover this themselves. Develop a series of questions about FAFSA and student aid, and set students on a web-based scavenger hunt to collect the answers. Reconvene students to discuss their answers and how they arrived at their responses.
  3. Readings and Questions: Offer a variety of readings on FAFSA provided by the federal government and your home state’s financial aid network. Have students answer questions based on their readings to encourage understanding of the material. Be prepared to discuss responses in class.
  4. Creatively Interpret FAFSA: A sock puppet explanation of FAFSA and a rap song about FAFSA already populate the web, but students may want to create their own creative interpretation of FAFSA. Encourage them to create their own song, infographic, or multimedia presentation on why FAFSA is important and how to complete the form.
  5. Student-Generated Resources: Along with creative interpretations of FAFSA, have students create their own FAFSA How-To guide that they can share with other students. Compile all of their frequently asked questions into a student-generated FAQ form, and have them share insights they have learned while completing their own form.

In Short

Completing the FAFSA may seem like a daunting task for students, but a bit of planning and preparation in the classroom can help them complete the form easily. Not only does completing the form secure students’ chances of receiving financial aid, it may help them learn important financial lessons as well.