Navigating the FAFSA: Guide for Prep and Submission

Learn How to Secure the Financial Aid You Need to Achieve Your Goals

Enrolling in college or pursuing a career school program can be a life-changing experience, but it’s no secret that it comes with a hefty price tag. Fortunately, the government offers a solution in the form of federal student aid, which includes grants, work-study funding, and loans. To access this vital aid, it’s necessary to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form — a quick, free, and easy process. By doing so, you can unlock the largest source of financial assistance and be one step closer to achieving your academic and professional goals.

Read on to learn how you can efficiently complete the FAFSA and access federal financial aid with UC Online’s step-by-step instructions, helpful tips, and insights.

What Is FAFSA?

The FAFSA form is an application for federal student aid, and completing it is an important step for college students to determine their eligibility for aid from states, colleges, and private providers. By completing this form, prospective students may apply for grants, work-study funds, and loans.

The submission process is free and straightforward but, to be eligible, applicants must demonstrate financial need, possess U.S. citizenship or eligible non-citizenship, and be enrolled in an eligible college or career school program. Below, you’ll find five steps to help you complete the FAFSA.

Step 1: Complete Income Tax Returns 

In order to start the FAFSA application, it is important to file your previous year’s taxes first. FAFSA applicants must use the IRS Direct Data Exchange to provide their federal tax information or confirm non-filing, which makes the FAFSA process easier and reduces the amount of information needed.

Step 2: Create an FSA ID

Before you can fill out your FAFSA, you need to create an FSA ID. This ID is a username and password that you’ll use to complete the form, take out loans, and log into all Federal Student Aid websites. As a student, you’ll need to provide your social security number (SSN), name, date of birth, a unique email address and password, and choose a multifactor authentication option. If your parent(s) need to provide information, they’ll create their own account using their unique email address and password, regardless of whether they have an SSN.

Step 3: Collect Documents

Depending on your circumstances, the FAFSA may require specific documents or information about your financial situation that include your:

  • Social security number
  • Parents’ social security numbers
  • Driver’s license number
  • Alien Registration number (if you are not a U.S. citizen),
  • Federal tax information, tax documents, or tax returns, including:
    • the IRS W-2
    • the IRS Form1040
    • foreign tax return or IRS Form 1040-NR
    • and tax returns for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or Palau
  • Records of untaxed income, such as:
    • child support
    • interest income
    • and veterans’ noneducation benefits
  • Information on:
    • cash or savings and checking account balances,
    • investments, including stocks and bonds and real estate (but not including the home in which you live)
    • and business and farm assets

By submitting these documents timely and accurately, you can avoid delays and increase your chances of receiving the financial aid you need.

Step 4: Complete the Application

It’s highly recommended that you fill out your FAFSA as early as possible to ensure that you’re considered for all types of federal financial aid, including aid funded directly by colleges and universities. To avoid missing out on opportunities, please check the application requirements and filing deadlines posted on financial aid websites. Also, make sure you consent to allow the IRS to share your tax information with the FAFSA, and keep in mind that some states or institutions may require additional applications to receive aid.

For help filling out the FAFSA, go to Federal Student Aid’s Filling Out the FAFSA Form for a question-by-question guide.

Step 5: Review the Submission Summary

Once you’ve submitted your FAFSA, you’ll receive an email notification informing you that your FAFSA Submission Summary is available for review on This summary will provide you with a recap of the information you provided on the FAFSA, your Student Aid Index (SAI), estimated federal student aid, and any issues that require your attention. It’s crucial to review this summary and make any necessary corrections promptly to ensure that the information provided to colleges is accurate and up-to-date.

Common FAFSA Mistakes to Avoid

  • Not completing the FAFSA at all
    • Although some people may need help filling out the FAFSA, it is the most effective way to receive the maximum amount of financial aid available. Plus, with adequate preparation, the form can be completed quickly and easily.
  • Not filing the FAFSA by the deadline
    • You should complete the FAFSA form before your earliest deadline, as each state and school sets its own deadline, and some are very early.
  • Not getting an FSA ID before filling out the FAFSA
    • After registering for an FSA ID, you may have to wait for up to three days before you can use it to sign your FAFSA form electronically. If you are a dependent student, you and your parent will need separate FSA IDs to sign the online FAFSA form.
  • Not using your FSA ID to start the FAFSA
    • Choose the student option when starting your FAFSA form, as this will automatically load some of your personal information and prevent errors. You won’t have to enter your FSA ID again if you transfer your tax information or sign your FAFSA form electronically.
  • Not using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT)
    • Eligible students and parents can use the IRS DRT to automatically transfer tax information into the FAFSA form, making it the fastest and most accurate way to enter tax return information.
  • Not reading definitions carefully
    • It is important to carefully read each definition and question on the FAFSA form, as it may require specific information that is not immediately obvious.
  • Inputting incorrect information
    • Here are some examples of common errors that people make while filling out the FAFSA form: confusing parent information with student information, entering data that doesn’t match their FSA ID, and providing the wrong amount of income tax.
  • Not reporting required information
    • If you’re financially independent but still considered a dependent student for federal student aid, you must provide your parent’s information on your FAFSA form. The U.S. Congress determines the dependency guidelines for the FAFSA form, which are different from the IRS dependency guidelines. If you don’t provide parent information, your FAFSA form may not be processed, and you may only qualify for unsubsidized loans.
    • If you choose to use the IRS DRT as recommended, most of the financial information required on the FAFSA form will automatically be filled in. However, some numbers must be manually entered, particularly those in the “Additional Financial Information” section. Review each item in the list, select the box if it applies to you, and enter the appropriate amount by referencing your relevant financial records. Tax-deferred pension and retirement savings plan payments can be found on your W-2 form.
  • Listing only one college
    • If you’re planning to apply to more than one college or haven’t decided where to go, it’s recommended that you add all the colleges you’re considering to your FAFSA.
  • Not signing the FAFSA Form
    • It is common for students to answer all the questions on the FAFSA form but forget to sign it with their FSA ID and submit it. This can happen due to various reasons, such as forgetting the FSA ID or not having the parent present to sign with the parent’s FSA ID, which results in an incomplete application.
  • Not understanding the academic calendar
    • Students often need help understanding how the academic calendar works (Fall-Summer), as a lack of awareness may lead to inadvertently choosing the wrong year when multiple FAFSA terms are available.

Unlock Funding for Your Future

Here at UC Online, we strongly encourage all students to prioritize the completion of the FAFSA as a critical step in their college planning process. By filling out this single application, you can unlock over $150 billion in college grants, work-study funds, federal student loans, and state-based aid. It’s the most crucial step in securing funds for college, and completing it accurately and promptly maximizes your eligibility for financial assistance. To help you throughout the process, UC Online has a dedicated Financial Aid Office to assist with financial planning, aid education, and best practices.

Feeling motivated? Learn more about filling out the FASFA form or take the first step towards a brighter future and connect with a UC Online advisor today.

birds eye view of students working at a round table with laptops and study materials
Need additional student resources?
Already an online student? UC Online has additional tips and tricks to ensure you are on the path to success. Check out our Student Resources section for what you need to maximize your learning.
Corporate Taxation professionals having a meeting
Helping You Build a Better Business Through Continuing Education
Employee recruitment and retention is crucial for the growth and profitability of an organization and should be a high priority for every business. At the University of Cincinnati Online, we want to help develop and retain your employees through our Business Partnership offering.

Sign up for updates from UC Online

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.