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FAFSA Questions: Step-by-Step

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: September 26, 2020

Start here if you seek to apply for financial aid from colleges and universities in the United States. The form you need to complete is called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA

After you complete the FAFSA form, you’ll get an Expected Family Contribution or EFC. Your EFC tells colleges how much your family can afford to pay for college. Colleges will use your EFC and other required information (e.g., CSS Profile, your state’s application, etc.) to create a financial aid package for you. 

You need to fill out FAFSA to get a financial aid package from your colleges. While not hard to complete, the FAFSA can be confusing and overwhelming, to say the least. Therefore, we’ve created this step-by-step guide that will help you question-by-question fill in the FAFSA. 

The form refreshes every year on October 1, and you should aim to submit the form as soon as possible as aid is often limited.

2022-2023

Getting Started & FAQs

How to Answer FAFSA Questions

This section is completed by or on half of the Student.

First and Last Name as it appears on your social security card.

Mailing Address, your legal residence, where you live permanently and receive mail. If your parents are divorced, see the Divorced Parents section of this guide.

Social Security number. You need a social security number to get an FSA-ID and sign it electronically. If you do not have a social security number, you can print and sign your FAFSA by hand. Federal Student Aid will mail you a Student Aid Report (SAR).

Driver license number and state, if available, enter your driver’s license number and state that granted the document. If you do not have a DL, then you can use a state I.D. FAFSA needs this to verify your identity.

Email address. Enter the email address that you check often. Federal Student Aid will email your FAFSA confirmation to this email address, as well as your Student Aid Report. If there are issues with your form, you will be contacted here.

Citizenship status. There are three options on the FAFSA: US Citizen, Eligible Non-Citizen, or Neither US Citizen or Eligible Non-Citizen. 

If you were born in the United States or have been naturalized, then you meet this criteria. 

If you are an Eligible Non-Citizen, you’ll need to enter your Alien Registration Number. You should select “Eligible Non-Citizen” and may be eligible for financial aid if any of the following apply to you. 

  • U.S. permanent resident, holding a Permanent Resident Card (I-551), or a conditional permanent resident with a Conditional Green Card (I-551C)
  • A Refugee, Granted Asylum, Parolee, T-Visa holder, or Cuban-Haitian Entrant, as per an I-94 Arrival-Departure Record from the Department of Homeland Security
  • Victim of human trafficking, as per a certificate or letter granted from  the Department of Health and Human Services showing a designation of “Victim of human trafficking”
  • A resident of the Republic of Palau (PW), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (MH), or the Federated States of Micronesia (FM)
  • A Canadian-born Native American under terms of the Jay Treaty

If none of the above apply to you, and you have any of the following documents, then you should select “Neither US Citizen or Eligible Non-Citizen.”

  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient
  • F1 or F2 student visa
  • J1 or J2 visitor visa
  • A G-series visa

Marital status. Your options are single, married/remarried, separated, or divorced/widowed. Select the criteria that fits your status. For all options besides “single,” you’ll need to add the month and year the status change occurred.

State of legal residence. There are three questions you’ll need to answer here. First, you’ll mention your legal state of residence, where you live most of the time, and receive your mail. After you indicate your state, FAFSA will ask if you’ve lived in this state for at least five years. If you answer “yes,” you can skip to the next question. If you answer, “no,” you’ll add in the month and year you moved to the state.

This question is asked because state agencies use it to determine your eligibility for in-state tuition and grant programs, if applicable.

If you are a returning student completing the FAFSA, do not put your campus address on this form. You would still put your permanent address, where you live with your parents. If your parents are divorced and live in two different states, see this guide’s Divorced Parents section.

Male or female. You are given two options, male or female. You cannot leave this question blank. Reference the gender you were assigned at birth. The question is asked to determine whether you must register for Selective Service in the next question.

Selective Service. If you are a male, between 18 and 25 years of age, you must register for the Selective Service. The Selective Service is the United State’s system for drafting young people into the army. You would check if you are registered, “yes” or “no.” If you select “no,” you can request that FAFSA register on your behalf. Please note that all males must register for the Selective Service to be eligible for financial aid.

To learn more about the Selective Service, visit sss.gov. You can also find forms at your local U.S. Post Office.

Drug possession or conviction. Being convicted of drug possession, WHILE receiving financial aid makes you ineligible to participate in the program. Only answer “yes,” if you:

  • You have received federal student aid.
  • You were convicted in the court of law for possessing or selling illegal drugs.
  • You were 18 years or older when the conviction happened.
  • The conviction is on your record.

Even if you answer yes, this does not mean that you won’t get financial aid. While you do not qualify for federal financial aid, you may still be eligible for state and institutional aid.

Education completion. For either or both of your Parents, you will select the highest educational level achieved. This question is asked for eligibility for certain state grants, or institutional grants if you’re a first-generation student, for example.

High school completion status. You will enter your your high school details, current grade, and the level at which you’ll be when you enroll in school for the 2021-2022 academic year. These questions are asked to further determine your dependency status and eligibility for financial aid.

College plans. For the Student, you will enter your intended degree of study for the 2021-2022 academic school year.

Work-Study. The Work-Study program is designed for students who are eligible to earn money each semester. Even if you’re not sure you’d like to work, you should opt-in now. Often, campus employers prefer work-study students for hire since their wages are subsidized, up to the amount designated in your financial aid package. Being in the work-study program does not require that you work. It just means another resource in your toolkit

 

On the FAFSA online application, you can list up to 10 colleges and universities. The paper application allows you to list 4. The schools you list are confidential and will not be shared with other schools on your list. You should list all the schools you apply to, even if you have not submitted your application. If you have more than ten schools, you can submit the FAFSA with 10. And then, after the form is processed (following receipt of the Student Aid Report), you can log-in, revise your application to include the additional schools, and resubmit the form. Please make sure you check with the added colleges to confirm they received the SAR.

To find FAFSA codes for your school, you can use the search feature in FAFSA or use this list.

FAFSA will ask you to declare your dependency status, either a dependent or independent student. If you are a dependent student, then you will have to give your parent(s)’ information. If you are an independent student, this information will not be required. You’d only provide your own financial information and your spouse’s if you are married. 


If you answer “yes” to any of the following questions, then you are considered an independent student.

  •  Were you born before January 1, 1998?
  • As of today, are you married?
  • Are you working on a master’s or doctorate degree?
  • Are you in the military?
  • Do you have any legal dependents, who receive more than half support from you or live with you 50% of the time?
  • Are you a ward of the state?
  • Are you an Emancipated Minor?
  • Does someone other than a parent or stepparent have legal guardianship of you?
  • Are you a homeless, unaccompanied youth determined by your high school, homeless shelter, or transitional living program?

Marital Status. Your Parent can choose single, married/remarried, separated, or divorced/widowed. Select the criteria that fit their status. For all options besides “single,” you’ll need to add the month and year the status change occurred.

Parent’s Basic Information. You will add information for Parent 1 and Parent 2, including social security number, last name, and first initial, and date of birth. Keep track of who you select as Parent 1 and Parent 2 as if you mix this up, it can cause processing delays.

Residency. There are three questions you’ll need to answer here. First, you’ll mention your parents’ legal state of residence, where they live most of the time and receive mail. After you indicate your parent(s)’ state, FAFSA will ask if they’ve lived in this state for at least five years. If you answer “yes,” you can skip to the next question. If you answer, “no,” you’ll add in the month and year they moved to the state.

If your parents are divorced and live in two separate states, you’ll put only the Parent who you live with most of the time. If you live with both parents equally, you’ll choose the Parent who supports you more financially.

This question is asked because state agencies use it to determine your eligibility for in-state tuition and grant programs, if applicable.

Parent’s Household. For this question, FAFSA asks for household size, which is your Parent(s), anyone your parent is taking care of financially and lives in the same household, and you. Next, answer how many people, including the Student, will be attending college during the 2022-2023 academic year. If more than 2 members of the household are attending college, you may qualify for more financial aid.

Public Benefits. Here you would select any public benefits programs you’re enrolled in. The options are Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Free or Reduced Price Lunch, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). If your parents receive any of these benefits, they may qualify for federal or state aid.

For the 2022-2023 FAFSA, your parents will need to use the tax returns for the 2020 tax year. In this question, for the Parent (s), you may select “Already Completed”, “Will File”, or “Not Going to File.” If your Parent (s) filed, you should have a copy of the physical tax return. If there is an appointment to have the taxes filed, then selecting “will file” is appropriate. If your Parent (s) does not intend to file returns, then the college may reach out for an explanation as to the circumstances. If your parents are not married, divorced, or widowed, only one Parent’s financial information is required on the FAFSA.

For the tax returns filed, you will select for your Parent (s) either:

  • IRS 1040
  • IRS 1040A or 1040EZ
  • A foreign tax return. 
  • A tax return with Puerto Rico, another U.S. territory, or Freely Associated State. 

 Next, select your parents’ tax filing status, according to their tax return or anticipated return:

  • Single
  • Head of household
  • Married—filed a joint return
  • Married—filed a separate return
  • Qualifying widow(er)
  • Don’t know

 

If your Parent (s) have a Schedule 1 (Form 1040), in their return package, select “yes,” which is a form used when your parents could have completed a 1040A or 1040EZ but didn’t for one reason or another. This form simplifies the return.

If your Parent (s) did not file a Schedule 1 (Form 1040), select ‘No” or “Will File” a Schedule 1. 

 From the Schedule 1, report any of the following items:

  • Unemployment compensation (line 7)
  • Other income to declare an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend (line 8)
  • Educator expenses (line 10)
  • IRA deduction (line 19)
  • Student loan interest deduction (line 20)
  • Receiving, selling, sending, exchanging, or otherwise acquiring any financial interest in any virtual currency

For the dislocated worker question, select “yes” if your Parent (s):

  • Receiving unemployment benefits
  • Laid off or has received a lay-off notice from a job
  • Was self-employed but is now unemployed due to economic conditions or natural disaster
  • Is a displaced homemaker (e.g., stay-at-home-parent) who is having trouble finding work
  • Is married to an active duty member of the military and has had to move due to the spouse changing military bases and has lost employment or is unable to find a job as a result.

For figures from tax returns, you can try to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. When connected successfully, by clicking on the “Link to IRS” button on the first page of the Parent Financial Information section, a new page will open to the IRS webpage, where you can enter parents’ information and access their tax data. If data matches IRS data, then it will automatically fill in tax data in corresponding FAFSA fields. If not, you will need to enter the information manually.

Tax information is:

  • Adjusted Gross Income (line 7 – 1040; line 21 – 1040A; line 4 – 1040EZ). If your parents are married but file separately, you can add their AGIs and put the total amount.
  • Income Tax
    • 1040: line 56 minus line 47 and put the total
    • 1040A: line 28 minus line 36 and put the total
    • 1040EZ: line 10
  • Income (earnings)
    • 1040: lines 7+12+18+Box 14 of IRS Schedule K-1 (Form 1065)-for business owners if available
    • 1040A: line 7
    • 1040EZ: line 1
    • If no taxes were filed, use boxes 1 + 8 of the parent(s) W-2 statement
  • For Cash Savings, enter the amount in checking and savings accounts on the day the FAFSA is filed, minus any pending bills. This question is asked for insight into your family’s current financial situation.

 

  • For Investments, you’ll gather statements, combine totals, and input information for any of the following in your Parent (s)’ name:
    • Real estate, excluding the primary place of residence
    • Rental property, including in-home spaces your Parent (s), may be renting on sites like Airbnb, such as having a private entrance, kitchen, and bathroom.
    • Trust funds
    • Money market accounts
    • Stocks, stock options, bonds, and securities
    • CDs
    • Money Market accounts
    • Mutual funds
    • Land sale contracts and other installment contracts, including mortgages
    • 529/college savings accounts

Please note: life insurance policies, retirement accounts (e.g., 401K, IRAs), annuities, non-education IRAs, Keogh plans, cash, savings accounts, and the primary residence is not considered an investment on the FAFSA.

If your Parent (s) own a business or farm, this section can be excluded with 100 or fewer employees. If they own a business with more than 100 employees, you must report the value of the businesses’ or farm’s net worth. This can be calculated by taking the value and subtracting how much debt is owed. If the number is positive, leave as is. If it’s negative, put “0.”

Additional Information.

There is additional information asked by FAFSA that highlights the family’s financial situation. 

You’ll report on any of the following the apply, including:

  • Education credits (American Opportunity Tax Credit and Lifetime Learning Tax Credit) from IRS Form 1040 Schedule 3 – line 50
  • Child support paid to support a dependent for whom they do not have primary custody. 
  • Taxable earnings from need-based employment programs, such as work-study, fellowships, or assistantships.
  • College grant and scholarship aid reported to the IRS, from an outside entity (not the college or university directly).  
  • Combat pay or special combat pay, only if listed as a deduction on the tax return as part of their Adjusted Gross Income. Your Parent (s) do not have to report untaxed combat pay.
  • Cooperative education program earnings, from an experiential learning environment outside of a classroom. 

 

Untaxed Income

  • Untaxed income is money your Parent (s) gathered from various sources that are not reported on the tax return but give insight into the financial situation. These include:
  • Payments to tax-deferred pension and retirement savings plans.
  • Child support received.
  • Housing, food, and other living allowances paid to the military, clergy, and others.
  • Veterans non-education benefits, excluding the GI Bill or post-911 GI Bill.
  • Other untaxed income not reported, such as workers’ compensation or disability benefits.
  • Money received or paid on your behalf, for example, to pay for education expenses.
  • Student Income Tax Return
  • Student Income Tax Return Details
  • Schedule 1 (Form 1040)”
  • Student and Spousal Adjusted Gross Income
  • Student and Spouse’s Income Tax
  • Student and Spouse’s Tax Earnings
  • Student and Spousal Total Balance of Cash
  • Student and Spouse Investments/Businesses
  • Student additional Financial Information
  • Student Untaxed Income

The Student Financial section of the FAFSA mirrors the parent section, with a few exceptions.  

For the 2022-2023 FAFSA, the Student will need to use the tax returns for the 2020 tax year. In this question, for the Student and Spouse (if applicable), you may select “Already Completed”, “Will File”, or “Not Going to File.” If  the Student and Spouse (if applicable) filed, there should be a copy of the physical tax return available. If there is an appointment to have the taxes filed, then selecting “will file” is appropriate. If the Student and Spouse (if applicable) does not intend to file returns, this section will be skipped and no student financial information will need to be reported.

For the tax returns filed, you will select for the Student and Spouse (if applicable) either:

  • IRS 1040

  • IRS 1040A or 1040EZ

  • A foreign tax return. 

  • A tax return with Puerto Rico, another U.S. territory or Freely Associated State. 

Next, select the Students’ tax filing status, according to their tax return or anticipated return:

  • Single

  • Head of household

  • Married—filed a joint return

  • Married—filed a separate return

  • Qualifying widow(er)

  • Don’t know

If the Student and Spouse (if applicable) have a Schedule 1 (Form 1040), in their return package, select “yes,” which is a form used when the students could have completed a 1040A or 1040EZ but didn’t for one reason or another. This form simplifies the return.

If the Student and Spouse (if applicable) did not file a Schedule 1 (Form 1040), select ‘No” or “Will File” a Schedule 1. 

From the Schedule 1, report any of the following items:

  • Unemployment compensation (line 7)

  • Other income to declare an Alaska Permanent Fund dividend (line 8)

  • Educator expenses (line 10)

  • IRA deduction (line 19)

  • Student loan interest deduction (line 20)

  • Receiving, selling, sending, exchanging, or otherwise acquiring any financial interest in any virtual currency

Enter the following financial  information for the Student manually:

  • Adjusted Gross Income (line 7 – 1040; line 21 – 1040A; line 4 – 1040EZ). If the students are married but file separately, you can add their AGIs and put the total amount.

  • Income Tax

    • 1040: line 56 minus line 47 and put the total

    • 1040A: line 28 minus line 36 and put the total

    • 1040EZ: line 10

  • Income (earnings)

    • 1040: lines 7+12+18+Box 14 of IRS Schedule K-1 (Form 1065)-for business owners if available

    • 1040A: line 7

    • 1040EZ: line 1

    • If no taxes were filed, use boxes 1 + 8 of the Student and Spouse (if applicable) W-2 statement

  • For Cash Savings, enter the amount in checking and savings accounts on the day the FAFSA is filed, minus any pending bills. This question is asked for insight into your family’s current financial situation.

  • For Investments, you’ll gather statements, combine totals, and input information for any of the following in the Student and Spouse (if applicable)’ name:

    • Real estate, excluding the primary place of residence

    • Rental property, including in-home spaces the Student and Spouse (if applicable), may be renting on sites like Airbnb, such as having a private entrance, kitchen, and bathroom.

    • Trust funds

    • Money market accounts

    • Stocks, stock options, bonds, and securities

    • CDs

    • Money Market accounts

    • Mutual funds

    • Land sale contracts and other installment contracts, including mortgages

    • 529/college savings accounts (in the Student’s name, not the Parents on behalf of the Student)

Please note: life insurance policies, retirement accounts (e.g., 401K, IRAs), annuities, non-education IRAs, Keogh plans, cash, savings accounts, and the primary residence is not considered an investment on the FAFSA.

If the Student and Spouse (if applicable) own a business or farm, this section can be excluded with 100 or fewer employees. If they own a business with more than 100 employees, you must report the value of the business or farm’s net worth. This can be calculated by taking the value and subtracting how much debt is owed. If the number is positive, leave it as is. If it’s negative, put “0.”

Additional Information.

There is additional information asked by FAFSA that highlights the family’s financial situation. 

You’ll report on any of the following that apply, including:

  • Education credits (American Opportunity Tax Credit and Lifetime Learning Tax Credit) from IRS Form 1040 Schedule 3 – line 50

  • Child support paid to support a dependent for whom they do not have primary custody. 

  • Taxable earnings from need-based employment programs, such as work-study, fellowships, or assistantships.

  • College grant and scholarship aid reported to the IRS, from an outside entity (not the college or university directly).  

  • Combat pay or special combat pay, only if listed as a deduction on the tax return as part of their Adjusted Gross Income. the Student and Spouse (if applicable) do not have to report untaxed combat pay.

  • Cooperative education program earnings, from an experiential learning environment outside of a classroom. 

Untaxed Income

  • Untaxed income is money the Student and Spouse (if applicable) gathered from various sources that are not reported on the tax return but give insight into the financial situation. These include:

  • Payments to tax-deferred pension and retirement savings plans.

  • Child support received.

  • Housing, food, and other living allowances paid to the military, clergy, and others.

  • Veterans non-education benefits, excluding the GI Bill or post-911 GI Bill.

  • Other untaxed income not reported, such as workers’ compensation or disability benefits.

  • Money received or paid on your behalf, for example, to pay for education expenses.

In the final section of the FAFSA, you will select if you used a preparer (or are a preparer). If you hired someone to complete the form on your behalf, they’d select “yes,” and write in their Social Security and Employer Identification Number. If not, then you’d select “no.” In the next fields, you’d enter your full Social Security (again), and your last name and date of birth. Then, you will sign off on the FAFSA disclosure statement, selecting “I Agree,” or “I Disagree.” If you’d like to move forward with submitting your application, you’d select the former option. In closing, you’d sign the form electronically, with your FSA I.D. and your parent, either Parent 1 or Parent 2 (if a dependent student), will sign electronically. You will choose “Submit my FAFSA now.”

After hitting submit, immediately, a new window will appear, called the confirmation page. Your confirmation page will list your family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC), or the number they believe you can pay for college. This number, along with other factors, may be used to create a financial aid package should you be offered admissions into the college or university.

Do not close the window! Some states, such as New York, will automatically link you to the Tuition Assistance Program, where you can continue to complete the state financial aid program form.

Congratulations! You are one-step closer to securing financial aid.

Here’s a list of the next steps after submitting your FAFSA form:

  1. Save your confirmation page.
  2. Check your email in a few days for your Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR displays your family’s EFC. While the EFC is not necessarily what you will pay for college, it is the number used by colleges to determine the amount of financial aid you are eligible for.
  3. Check with your school’s financial aid office if you’re also required to complete the CSS Profile administered by the College Board. This form is not free and is commonly requested by independent, nonprofit, and private universities. It costs $9 to complete the CSS profile and $16 for each school that you add unless you qualify for a fee waiver.
  4. Be prepared to submit additional financial aid documents, such as copies of tax returns, W-2s, and any verification forms the school may request.
  5. If you are admitted into the college, you can expect an award letter within 2-3 weeks. If you do not receive an award letter by then, check with the school’s financial aid office.
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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.