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The financial aid process begins by filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The FAFSA requires information from both students and parents and can be done either online or on paper. All students should file a FAFSA; if for some reason you choose not to, you should call your prospective schools to inform them. The FAFSA is a way of determining how much money you “need” from outside sources to attend a particular college. The amount of need is based on both your financial information andthe cost of the college. Additionally, it serves as a “trigger” for state and school funds, as well as scholarships, and grants. In other words, it gets the ball rolling.

It’s easiest to file online at, although it can be completed on paper as well. There are a variety of features on this website, but eventually you will need to click on the “Fill out your FAFSA” link under step 2. Seniors and parents should set aside an hour or more to fill out this form. Most of it will need to be completed by parents. It’s very important that you check with your school to make sure that you’re aware of their FAFSA deadlines (some schools want the FAFSA as early as Feb 15) as well as other financial aid requirements. If you’re not sure or haven’t yet been accepted, you should file the FAFSA early and have it sent to your school.

An overview of the process in chronological order:

  1. The FAFSA is available starting January 1 of the calendar year in with your son/daughter will begin college. It is not available before January 1.
    If you have filed your taxes, you may be copying many figures from your federal return onto your FAFSA. This makes the FAFSA relatively quick.
    If you have not done your taxes yet, you may fill out the FAFSA by estimating such things as income and assets. When your taxes are filed, you must go back into your FAFSA and correct it with the exact numbers.
  2. Pay very close attention to your school’s financial aid deadlines. Some schools require that the FAFSA filed by February 15. In general, the earlier you file your FAFSA the more likely you are to receive aid.
  3. If you complete your FAFSA online, you will be required to sign with a PIN. You may apply for this PIN when you get to the end of the FAFSA. It will take 1-3 days for your PIN to be produced. (You may also visit to apply for a PIN before you file the FAFSA if you think you might be pressed for time.)
  4. The FAFSA gets sent to the Central Processing System (CPS – a government agency) first. They determine, based on the information you provided, how much they expect your family to contribute to the cost of college. This number is called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
  5. You will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) within a few days if you filed your FAFSA online or within a few weeks if you filed on paper. The SAR will contain your estimated EFC. Review this for accuracy and make changes if necessary, according to the directions.
  6. The EFC is sent to the schools you listed at the end of the FAFSA. Schools may build a financial aid package around this number. For example, if your school’s cost of attendance (COA) is listed as $50,000 and your EFC was $20,000, you’re “need” is $30,000. The school may offer some or all of this demonstrated need through scholarships, loans, grants, and/or work-study programs.
  7. Schools will mail you an award letter detailing this information. Instructions from that point forward will be provided from each school. You may have time to compare each school’s financial package before you make your final decision regarding which school to attend. The deadline for your final decision is usually May 1.

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