If you are seeking a federal educational financial aid grant to attend a community college, university, or a career school then you will need to fill-out the “Free Application for Federal Student Aid,” or FAFSA. All types of federal student grants, loans and work-study programs require this free application, which the government uses to assess your qualifications. In addition, many schools and colleges also use your FAFSA for their own non-federal financial aid programs.
When you fill-out the U.S. Department of Education Federal Student Aid office’s FAFSA, you will need to indicate what school you plan to attend and what federal aid you are seeking, in which case you can choose “all the above” and then pick and choose the best program for your needs. These grant programs include the Federal Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, and Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant. The loans include Federal Perkins Loan, Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized Stafford Loans, and Direct PLUS Loans.
It is important to be aware of the federal and state FAFSA deadlines and complete your application starting January 1st each year. You college or school will also have their own deadlines. You can check the deadlines at the FAFSA website by entering your state and what school year for which you are requesting student aid that corresponds with the FAFSA grant you are seeking. For example, you would select the 2011-2012 school year if you plan to attend school from September 2011 through June 2012.
Before you fill out the FAFSA application you will need to assemble certain documentation. This includes records of the income you earned for the year prior to when you plan to attend school, including your income tax return and all W-2 forms. If you are a “dependent” of your parents, then you will need their income information and if you are married, you will nedd your spouse’s documentation as well. You will also need certain identification documents, including your social security card and a driver’s license, if you have one.
FAFSA's website has a "worksheet" you can print and fill out to organize this information before you tackle the application process. The website actually guides you as to what questions you will need to answer and what information you will need to have to verify your answers.
There are 3 ways you can choose from to file your FAFSA application. One way is to request a hardcopy of the application through the mail by calling FAFSA at 1-800-4-FED-AID. Another process that involves mailing the application is to print out a PDF and fill it out. You can also screen-fill the PDF on your PC, but you will find you can’t save your application on your computer.
The recommended way to complete the FAFSA is to do it online at fafsa.gov. You will be required to login and create a PIN, which is also used to "sign" your application. The advantage of applying online is that if you get stuck without the needed answers or information, you can simply save your application for later completion.