The cost of college seems to be going nowhere but up, so it's not surprising that many students require federal aid. And that's where the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)  comes in.

Students need to fill out the FAFSA to qualify for federal grants, student loans, or work-study programs, and 97% of families with college-bound students plan to complete the FAFSA, according to a 2019 Discover Student Loans survey

A man filling out an application form on a sunny desk.

Image source: Getty Images

But more than a third of parents are stressed about filling out financial paperwork. If your family is stressed about the FAFSA, here's what you need to know.

1. You can file online

You don't need to fill out a physical form to submit the FAFSA. You can create a FAFSA ID online and complete the form from there. You'll need your Social Security number along with other pertinent information like your date of birth. You'll also need to have your parents’ most recent tax returns on hand, as well as bank and brokerage account statements documenting their assets. And if you filed your own tax return or have your own assets, you’ll need that information, as well.

All of this information will be taken into account to determine how much your family is capable of contributing toward your education and how much aid you actually need. (Of course, the amount the FAFSA formula thinks your family can afford may not match reality; but for aid purposes, it’s the amount that’ll be considered). 

If you file your FAFSA online, it will take three to five days for the Department of Education to process it. If you file on paper, it will take seven to 10 days. Once your application is processed, the information you provided will be sent to the colleges you list on your FAFSA and they’ll use that data to determine how much aid you’re eligible for. 

2. It won't take long

Filling out the FAFSA isn't a time-consuming process. In most cases, it only takes about 30 minutes.

Just be sure to choose the right form -- you'll need the 2020–21 FAFSA if you'll be attending college during that time.

3. It pays to apply for federal aid even if you don't think you'll qualify

Discover Student Loans reports that 85% of students who submit the FAFSA receive some type of financial aid for college. The FAFSA actually has no income cap, so you can apply regardless of your family's earnings level. 

4. You should file sooner rather than later

State governments use the FAFSA to determine who’s eligible for state-funded grants and scholarships, and many schools use the FAFSA to see which students qualify for additional grants or scholarships as well.

Because most states and many colleges offer financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis, it pays to complete the FAFSA as soon as it becomes available on October 1. The general deadline to file the FAFSA for the 2020–2021 academic year is June 30, 2021, but you should research your state's specific FAFSA deadline, too. However, if you're seeking aid earlier in the academic year, you'll need to apply sooner. 

Filling out the FAFSA doesn’t have to be a harrowing process. Just gather all the information you’ll need to complete it and carve out a little time to get it done. With any luck, you’ll be awarded some type of aid that ultimately makes college more affordable for you.