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If you're headed to college or about to send your child there, you may need a little financial help. Fortunately, there's plenty of financial aid available for college — and it all starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or the FAFSA. Work-study programs, student loans, and federal or state grants all require the FAFSA. Applying with the FAFSA can be complex and challenging, but resources are available.

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Create Your Account and FSA ID

You require an FSA ID for every step of your FAFSA application. You need it to sign your FAFSA form online and submit it. The college applicant needs their own FSA ID, and parents who have to report their financial information need a separate ID. New FAFSA applicants and parents can use their FSA IDs immediately. If you've filled out a FAFSA before and are renewing it for your next school year, you need a new FSA ID and may have to wait a day or two for account verification.

creating an FSA ID

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File Your Income Tax Return

The FAFSA asks for your most recent tax returns, so if you got an extension, finish filing the returns before you submit your FAFSA. If you're submitting your FAFSA in October 2018, you should include your 2017 tax returns. The IRS makes it easy to transfer your tax return directly from its website to your FAFSA, which helps with both convenience and accuracy.

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Confirm Your Financial Aid Deadlines

In recent years, the FAFSA has begun accepting forms beginning October 1 — but that date is far from the only one that matters in your quest for financial aid. Different schools have different deadlines for your financial aid application, and if you're applying for aid from your state, you have another set of deadlines to track. Make a chart of all your deadlines and the paperwork requirements for each financial source to which you're applying.

FAFSA

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Get Your Documents Organized

To fill out the FAFSA each year, you need easy access to all your personal financial documents, past financial aid award letters, loan documents, and previously completed FAFSA forms. It's easiest to work with hard copies, so print out anything you need to, and file all your documents in an accordion folder for easy access. Keep that folder safe, since it contains tax returns and Social Security numbers.

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Start Completing Your FAFSA Online

The earlier you file your FAFSA, the better, since schools typically have a limited amount of financial aid available. Head to fafsa.gov to get started. Enter your FSA ID, followed by your username and password. Parents need to enter their child's name, date of birth, and Social Security number to access the right account. You have to file a new FAFSA for every school year. If you've done it already, click the "renew" button to have all your basic demographic information ported to the new form.

FAFSA online
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Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool is a handy and convenient way to transfer your income tax data directly to your FAFSA, saving you time and hassle. You're eligible to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool if you mailed your tax returns to the IRS at least eight weeks before completing the FAFSA or if you filed them electronically two weeks in advance. The FAFSA website will send you to the IRS website to take care of transferring your data, and the IRS website then sends you back to the FAFSA site.

IRS Data Retrieval Tool

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Create a Save Key

You can create a save key to save your FAFSA form before you've completed it, so you can come back and finish it later. Students can share the save key with their parents to give them access to fill out their portion, so it's especially helpful if you and your parents aren't in the same location. Think of the save key as a temporary password.

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Sign and Submit Your Application

The final stage in filing your FAFSA is signing and submitting it. You're allowed to sign using your FSA ID, and doing so may speed up your processing. If you're a dependent student, your parent also needs to sign. Make sure you and each of your parents sign with the correct FSA ID. Confusion of FSA IDs is a common error that causes delays in processing. If you can't sign electronically with your FSA ID, you can mail in a signature page, though this will delay processing, as well.

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Confirm the Status of Your Application

After you've completed and submitted your FAFSA, check the status on the FAFSA website. Typically, applications are processed within one to two weeks, though processing can occur more quickly in some cases. However, if the application was bounced back to you due to errors, you want to know as soon as possible so you can correct them and resubmit.

Confirming the Status of Your Application

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Stay in Touch With Your College Financial Aid Offices

The FAFSA website will not contact you about the financial aid you receive. That information comes from the financial aid offices at the college you're already attending or those to which you've applied. They may offer you any combination of work-study jobs, scholarships, loans, grants, and other financial aid options, based on the results of your FAFSA application.

College Financial Aid Offices

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