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FAFSA Grants: Everything You Need to Know

FAFSA Grants: Everything You Need to Know
LeeMarie Kennedy
LeeMarie KennedyUpdated August 4, 2023
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People say that getting government loans for college begins with FAFSA. But what does that mean?A Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that can be completed by prospective and current college students to see if they’re eligible for financial aid.There are certain eligibility requirements and things to know about the application process, and this article helps break down how to navigate FAFSA grants and what you need to do to apply. 

What Is FAFSA? 

If you’re wondering, “how does FAFSA work?,” here are a few helpful facts to get you started: 
  • The FAFSA is a form you can fill out to apply for federal student aid options like federal grants, student loans and work study programs. 
  • It’s free to complete and submit the FAFSA and it offers applicants the largest selection of financial aid to cover the cost of college or career school. 
  • Several states and colleges use an applicant’s FAFSA information to determine their eligibility for state and academic aid, and some private student loan providers may pull up a person’s FAFSA information to determine whether they qualify for a loan. 
For all of these reasons, FAFSA is a popular and beneficial resource for securing financial assistance for college. 

How to Apply for FAFSA   

You now have the answer to “What is FAFSA?” To formally apply for it, you can visit the StudentAid.Gov website and complete a few steps (below). If you’re more visually oriented, you can also check out this video on how to fill out the FAFSA

Gather the Documents You’ll Need   

Pull together your necessary documents and information, which includes:
  • Social Security number 
  • Driver’s license number (if you have one)
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers (if you’re a dependent)
  • Alien Registration number (if you’re not a U.S. citizen)
  • Federal tax information, documents, and prior tax returns for you, your spouse (if you’re married) and your parents (if you’re a dependent). These would include: 
    • W-2s 
    • IRS Form 1040
    • IRS 1040NR (for nonresident aliens) 
    • Tax returns for American Samoa, Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, or the U.S. Virgin Islands 
  • Records of untaxed income, i.e. interest income, child support received, and veterans noneducation benefits (for yourself and your parents if you’re a dependent) 
  • Financial records of available cash, investments (i.e. stocks, bonds and real estate), and savings and checking account balances (for yourself and your parents if you’re a dependent)

Complete FAFSA Form   

If you’re ready to get started, you can fill out the official FAFSA application hereUse the documents you gathered above and make note of the deadlines in your state (at the bottom of the webpage) to ensure you submit your FAFSA grant on time. 

Review Student Aid Report 

After you submit your FAFSA form, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). This is a paper or electronic document that summarizes your self-reported application information. You can learn more about accessing your SAR here
  • If you provided an email address on your FAFSA form, you’ll receive an email from [email protected] with instructions on how to access an online copy of your SAR
  • Otherwise, you’ll get a paper copy via postal mail
  • You can also log into the FAFSA account you created online and access your SAR there
Once you locate or receive your SAR, look it over to ensure all the details are accurate. 

Respond to Aid Offer and Accept the Aid You Want  

Here are a few guidelines for how to accept aid, according to the Federal Student Aid website: 
  • Accept financial aid in the following order:
    • “Free money” like scholarships and grants first 
    • “Earned money” like work study funds second
    • “Borrowed money” like federal student loans last 
  • Look into scholarships and grants:

Receive Aid  

The type of federal aid you accept will affect when and how you receive your funds.

Grants and Student Loans

Most schools will give out FAFSA grant or loan funds in at least two payments, called “disbursements.” They’re typically required to pay out the grant or student loan funds to students at least once per academic term (semester, trimester, or quarter) and at least twice per academic year. The same cadence applies for Direct PLUS LoansA couple things to mention:
  • For first-time borrowers and first-year undergrads, there may be a 30-day waiting period after the first day of school enrollment before funds are made available. The school itself determines whether this rule applies.
  • For first-time Direct Subsidized Loan or Direct Unsubsidized Loan borrowers and Direct PLUS Loan borrowers, entrance counseling must be completed before funds can be disbursed from the school. 


Work-study students receive their funds at least once per month.

Direct PLUS Loans for Parents

For parents who take out Direct PLUS loans to subsidize a dependent’s college education, the school will typically disburse aid payments by crediting it to the dependent’s school account. Once the funds are applied to tuition, room & board, and other fees, the school may give the leftover money to the student or parent. 

Renew Your FAFSA Form 

FAFSA grants are applicable for a single academic year, meaning you’ll need to renew the FAFSA form annually to apply for more aid. It’s important to see if you meet the FAFSA deadlines for your school and state, so you can maximize the amount of needs-based financial aid you’re able to receive.

To Renew Your FAFSA Form: 

  1. Go to and log in with your FSA ID username and password (if you forgot your username or password, click here
  2. For students who previously downloaded the myStudentAid mobile app, the renewal will automatically display in the app
  3. Update any information that has changed and provide the requested financial information
  4. Sign and submit the FAFSA renewal

What Are the Eligibility Requirements?   

The general eligibility criteria for FAFSA applicants are that they demonstrate financial need, are a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen, and the following requirements where applicable: 

Qualify to Obtain a College or Career School Education  

FAFSA applicants should have a high school diploma or equivalent and thus qualify to obtain a college or career school education.

Be Admitted/Enrolled in an Eligible Degree or Certificate Program 

FAFSA applicants should be enrolled or accepted into an eligible degree or certificate program as a regular student.

Possess a Valid SSN (Exceptions: Marshall Islands, Republic of Palau, Micronesia)   

FAFSA applicants should have a valid Social Security number, unless they’re from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, or the Republic of Palau.

Students With a Parent Killed in Iran or Afghanistan  

If a FAFSA applicant’s parent died as a result of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan, she or he may be eligible for an additional Federal Pell Grant or an Iraq and Afghanistan Service GrantRecommended: Select Service and FAFSA Grants

Be a US Citizen/National or Possess a Green Card or Arrival-Departure Record  

FAFSA applicants must either: 
  • Be U.S. citizens, which means they were:
    • Born in the United States or;
    • Born abroad to parents who are U.S. citizens or;
    • Obtained citizenship status through naturalization 
  • Have been born in American Samoa or Swains Island, which would make them U.S. nationals 
  • Have a green card
  • Have an arrival/departure record 
  • Have battered immigrant status 
  • Have a T Visa 
Recommended: Do You Need To Register for the Selective Service To Receive FAFSA?

The Takeaway   

How does FAFSA work? The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form you can fill out to apply for federal student aid such as federal grants, student loans, and work-study programs. FAFSA grants generally offer the largest selection of federal financial aid, and FAFSA applications are used by many schools, states, and lenders to determine eligibility for financial aid. It’s free to complete and submit the FAFSA form, but there are some specific eligibility and renewal requirements that you should be aware of before you start the process. You’ll have to repay federal loans with interest. In some cases, federal student loans can be refinanced with a private lender. 

3 Student Loan Tips   

  1. Refinancing your student loan can lower your monthly payments and help you adjust your loan term. Compare student loan refinancing rates to find a loan that works for you.
  2. Paying extra each month on your student loan can reduce the interest you pay and so lower your total loan cost over time. (The law prohibits prepayment penalties on federal or private student loans.)
  3. If you teach full-time for five complete and consecutive academic years in a low-income school, you may be eligible for federal student loan forgiveness.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there other financial aid resources besides FAFSA?
How do I get my FAFSA grant money?
How much can I get from the FAFSA grant?
Do I have to pay it back if I get a FAFSA grant?
Photo credit: iStock/busracavus

About the Author

LeeMarie Kennedy

LeeMarie Kennedy

LeeMarie Kennedy is a Boston-based copywriter and content creator with over a decade of experience writing for a variety of publishers, institutions, and corporations. She has spent the last few years focusing on writing for financial services, technology, HR and TA, and health & wellness sectors. LeeMarie has a BA in Journalism from Quinnipiac University and a MS in Organizational Communication from Northeastern University and was an original contributor to The Daily, SoFi's newsletter.
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