The FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – is the form used by students and their parents to apply for educational assistance from the U.S. Government, including grants, loans, and work-study programs.

Many states and private institutions also award aid on the basis of the FAFSA. Even students who know they do not qualify for federal assistance are often advised to fill out a FAFSA because it can help them receive the state and private assistance they are eligible for.

The FAFSA is available in print and online formats. Printed applications are available from high schools and college and university financial aid offices. The online form is available through the official FAFSA website, www.fafsa.ed.gov.

At first glance, a FAFSA might look overwhelmingly complex. Relax! Although it is a long and rather detailed form, it’s not difficult to complete if you gather the information you’ll need beforehand and take the process step by step.

Follow our tips to make the process go more smoothly:

1) Start early. You won’t be able to submit a FAFSA until October 1, but you can get a head start by organizing the information you’ll need. The sooner you complete your FAFSA, the better your chances are of maximizing the amount of aid you’ll receive. (Many schools award student aid on a first-come, first-served basis and may not have enough money to give late applicants full funding.)

2) Check deadlines. States and schools often have earlier financial aid application deadlines than the federal government does. Some state deadlines fall as early as March 1. Make sure you understand which deadlines you need to meet.

3) Apply for a PIN if you’ll be completing the FAFSA online. A FAFSA PIN (personal identification number) will allow you to sign and submit your application electronically, which speeds up the review process. You’ll also be able to use it to save and edit your application online. To get a PIN, go to www.pin.ed.gov. The number will be emailed to you in approximately 3 days. (If your parents are signing your FAFSA, they will need to apply for their own PIN numbers.)

4) Gather the information and documents you’ll need to complete the FAFSA. Click here to see a list.

5) Download a FAFSA worksheet from the official FAFSA website and fill it out before you begin the actual form.

6) Make sure you’re using the right website if you’re completing the FAFSA online. As its name implies, the FAFSA is free. If you’re being asked to pay something to prepare or submit a FAFSA, you’ve gone to the wrong website.

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