Mike Brown Updated on September 19, 2017

Here at Nitro, we frequently talk with financial aid officers at colleges and universities around the country. When we ask them about the biggest mistake people make when paying for college, we often hear the same thing.

“They don’t apply for FAFSA.”

FAFSA, otherwise known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, gives out $120 billion in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds to more than 13 million students every year. So why don’t more people apply?

There are probably two main reasons:

  1.       Some people may assume that they won’t qualify for aid.
  2.       People may be put off the notoriously long and confusing application.

If these reasons are keeping you from applying for FAFSA, you might not be aware of all the financial aid benefits that FAFSA can unlock for you—and how you may be denying yourself key opportunities by skipping it.

Let’s talk about what FAFSA can do for you, and how you can take some of the pain out of the application process.

How FAFSA works

If you’re not entirely sure what FAFSA is or how it works, you’re not alone.

Because FAFSA has “federal” in the name, many people believe that FAFSA only deals with federal aid. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, FAFSA is often your gateway to state and school-specific aid as well.

To understand why, it can be helpful to know how FAFSA works.

After you apply for FAFSA, the federal government processes your application and determines your expected family contribution or EFC, based on the income information you provided. Remember the term EFC, because it will come into play later.

You’ll receive your EFC on your Student Aid Report (SAR), which you’ll get within about two weeks after you fill out your FAFSA.

However, your SAR won’t tell you a whole lot about the aid that you’re eligible for.

Why not? Because your FAFSA has a few other stops to make.

Your FAFSA will be shared with the colleges you apply to. Those colleges and universities will evaluate you for aid based on your EFC.

The schools that accept you will send you a financial award letter, which will usually arrive not long after you receive your acceptance.  

This letter will spell out how much money you can expect to receive from:

Despite the results of your SAR, remember that you can always apply for additional financial aid from other sources to reduce your costs even further. (See our state-specific guides to financial aid to learn more.)

Taking the pain out of FAFSA

As we mentioned earlier, many people find that filling out the FAFSA is somewhat painful. That’s why we’ve created a question-by-question guide to help you fill out the application.

FAFSA applications are accepted as early as October 1, so be sure to apply sooner rather than later. Some scholarships and grants have early deadlines, and you don’t want to miss out.

Tip: You don’t even have to know which schools you’re applying to in order to fill out the FAFSA, so there’s no need to wait.

Remember, FAFSA is the key to unlocking multiple sources of financial aid. Don’t leave college money on the table by not applying. And remember, we’re here to help.

If you still need additional funds for college after exhausting your resources for grants, scholarships, and federal loans, check out our guide to the best lenders for private student loans.

Best Banks for Private Student Loans in 2017. Get Your Rate.

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