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If you are thinking about college, you’re probably also thinking about how to pay for it. In this three-part series, we’ll explore the entire financial aid process (which is how most college students fund part of their education). In this first blog, you’ll learn how to apply for federal financial aid using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The second blog will explain the four types of financial aid. Finally, the third blog will help you understand how colleges award financial aid. At the end of the series, you should have a good grasp of how to fund your college education.

So…how to apply! The FAFSA is your application for federal, state, and college-based financial aid. The process can seem intimidating, so let’s break it down into steps.

Step 1: Create a federal student aid account.

To begin the process of applying for financial aid, you and a parent must each create a federal student aid account at This is the same site you will use to complete the FAFSA and apply for student loans (if you need them).

Step 2: Complete the FAFSA. 

The FAFSA opens on October 1 every year. Go to to complete the FAFSA or use the MyStudentAid app.

The FAFSA will ask a series of questions about your family income, assets, household size, and the number of family members in college. The colleges you list on the application will receive your FAFSA results and will use that information to award financial aid. More on that in the third blog in this series.

It’s important to complete the form before the colleges’ priority date to get the best financial aid package. Renew the FAFSA every year you plan to attend college. Use our FAFSA Tools to make completing the form easier. We even have a FAFSA Demo to quickly walk you through the form.

Step 3: Expect a Student Aid Report.

You’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) via an email link 3-5 days after you submit the FAFSA. The SAR lets you know that your FAFSA was received and if there’s more you need to do before your application can be processed.

Step 4: Be prepared for verification.

Watch your student portal and email closely as colleges might request documents to verify your FAFSA information. The colleges will not process your financial aid package until you provide the required documents, so do it in a timely fashion. 

Step 5: Compare award letters. 

After the colleges you listed on your FAFSA accept you for admission, they will send you award letters explaining the types of financial aid they’re offering based on your FAFSA results. Respond to all award letters by their deadlines. More about this in the second and third blogs in this series.

Compare the award letters to determine what you would need to spend out-of-pocket or borrow to cover the full cost of your education at each school, including tuition, books, room, board, transportation and other incidentals.

Step 6: Apply for student loans.

If you need student loans, your college will direct you to the necessary forms. Allow several weeks for processing time.

Before you borrow to cover college expenses, carefully consider all your options, including scholarships, living at home, attending a lower-cost school, and working part-time to cover personal expenses. Borrow as little as possible so you don’t leave college with a huge amount of debt.

Step 7: Apply for scholarships.

If you haven’t already started searching for scholarships, do so now! This Scholarship Tip Sheet will help guide you in the right direction.

Need help?

This is a lot to take in, so don’t hesitate to ask for help! Contact the EducationQuest office nearest you for help completing the FAFSA or to ask questions as you go through the financial aid process. And the best part is that all of our services are FREE!