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New Year Means New Application

Though it’s a day off from school and work, New Year’s Day is also a day to get down to business. While you’re starting in on your New Year’s resolutions, opening up a new calendar, and packing up the holiday decorations, there’s one more thing that college students and college-bound high school students should do each January. The Department of Education starts accepting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (more commonly known as "FAFSA") on January 1 each year. State application deadlines fall soon after—as early as February in some cases. So while you might not start classes until August or September, you want to start applying for financial aid as soon as the FAFSA is available each year.

What You Need

In order to complete a FAFSA, you will need the following:

  • your social security number
  • a driver’s license if you have one
  • bank statements and records of investments (if you have any)
  • records of untaxed income (again, if you have any)
  • your most recent tax return and W2s (2012 for the 2013-2014 FAFSA)
  • all of the above for your parents if you are considered a dependent
  • a PIN to sign electronically (go to pin.ed.gov to get one)

If you’ve applied before, you can fill out a renewal FAFSA, which will let you skip a few questions. You will still need your tax, savings, and investment information for the new year, though. You will always need tax information from the previous calendar year to file; it’s the most accurate predictor of ability to pay college, according to the Department of Education. If things changed drastically for your family in the last year, apply for student financial aid with the information you have, and then talk to your school’s financial aid office to make any necessary adjustments.

If you do not have your tax information by the time you’re ready to apply, which is often the case if you’re applying in January or February, use information you have available, such as a previous year’s tax return, to estimate to the best of your ability. That way, you have a FAFSA on file before priority deadlines have passed. Once you’ve done your taxes for the current year, you’ll be able to submit a correction online. While that might seem like more work, it’s the best recipe for maximizing your state and campus-based aid packages.

Why You Should Apply

Completing the FAFSA is an important step in funding your education if you don’t plan on paying for everything out-of-pocket. The FAFSA is used by the Department of Education to determine eligibility for federal student financial aid for college. This aid includes federal grant programs (such as the Pell Grant), federal work-study, and federal student loans. It is also used by states to determine eligibility for their college aid programs, such as state grants. Colleges also use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for the need-based aid programs they administer. Finally, many scholarship opportunities request FAFSA information as part of their application process. Even if you think that you won’t qualify for free money in the form of need-based college scholarships and grants, you should still apply. At the minimum, the vast majority of students qualify for Stafford Loans, low-interest federal student loans that represent one of the best deals in borrowing for school.

Where To Get More Information

Visit fafsa.ed.gov (the official FAFSA application website) and go through the links under "Before Beginning a FAFSA" to get started, especially if this is your first time filing. You’ll find information about application deadlines, required documents, applying for a PIN, and other things you need to know about to begin. We offer many of the same financial aid resources at Scholarships.com. For further reading, check out our "Resources" section.

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