The first step in the financial aid process is to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application, which is available to complete online (preferred method) or in paper format, will use income, assets and other factors to determine the amount you and your family are expected to contribute to your college expenses. Most of the questions are demographic-related and the rest of the answers come from your tax forms and/or those of your parents (if you’re a dependent student) or your spouse (if you are married). If you file the FAFSA online (FAFSA on the Web), you can list as many as ten different colleges that you may be attending and have information sent to them (only four colleges can be listed on the paper FAFSA). Your eligibility for financial aid will be determined by your and your family’s financial situation, and by filing your application on time.
How and When to File
Fill out your FAFSA as soon after January 1 as possible. You can complete the FAFSA online or a paper application.
For the quickest results, apply online. Before you submit your application online, you are encouraged to complete the process to receive a Personal Identification Number (PIN) from the U.S. Department of Education. Applicants who have not been assigned a PIN prior to completing the FAFSA online will have three options:
- Request a real-time PIN: a real-time PIN is valid temporarily, for the purpose of signing the FAFSA. The applicant's PIN data will undergo a match with the Social Security Administration (SSA). If the SSA match is successful, the PIN will become permanently valid (and may be used for signing FAFSAs in subsequent years). If the SSA match fails, the PIN will be disabled and the application results will be rejected.
- Print a signature page: applicants who do not have a PIN but do have access to a printer can generate a signature page. The signature page must be signed and immediately mailed to the U.S. Department of Education (ED). If the completed signature page is not received by ED within 14 days, a Student Aid Report (SAR) will be mailed to the applicant. The SAR must then be signed and returned to ED.
- Process without signature: the FAFSA can be submitted without a PIN or printed signature page - however, this will result in the application being rejected due to a missing signature. The applicant will receive a SAR in the mail, and the SAR must be signed and returned to ED. Because it will delay the processing of the application, this is the least desirable option.
If you use the Web, it's recommended that you review the Before Beginning a FAFSA section on the FAFSA on the Web site. Use the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet to prepare for completing the FAFSA online. The Worksheet presents questions in the same order they appear at FAFSA on the Web (which is different than the order of questions on the paper FAFSA).
You can also use IllinoisMentor’s FAFSA Transfer option to help complete the application. Using FAFSA Transfer can save you time by transferring personal profile information already stored in your My Mentor account directly to FAFSA on the Web.
If you are unable to complete the FAFSA online, but do have Internet access, you may download a PDF version of the FAFSA via the Federal Student Aid Web site. You may complete the PDF version of the FAFSA on the computer or by hand, then mail it to the address provided on the document. You may also request a paper FAFSA by calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC) toll-free at 800.4FEDAID (800.433.3243).
For specific instructions on how to complete the FAFSA, visit the U.S. Department of Education's Completing the FAFSA page.
If you or your parents need help completing your FAFSA, be wary of hiring a consultant. It may not be wise to pay for a service that’s free of charge elsewhere, and sometimes these services are simply scams. During January and February of each year, colleges and other community sites hosts College Awareness & Preparation events, which are free to the public. Most events feature FAFSA Workshops with financial aid professionals available to answer any financial aid questions and help you complete your FAFSA—at no charge. Be sure to bring your tax forms, and your parents’ tax forms if you’re a dependent student, to any workshop you attend.
Once processed by the U.S. Department of Education, you will receive a summary of your FAFSA results, called a Student Aid Report (SAR). The colleges you listed on your FAFSA will also receive the results, in order to determine your financial aid eligibility and prepare a financial aid package for you. The information reported on the FAFSA is confidential and remains within the financial aid office; it is not shared campus-wide. You may be asked to submit documentation (like income tax returns) to the financial aid office at the college to verify the information reported on the FAFSA.