Published in: Student Loans | Oct. 22, 2019

Your Complete Guide to the 2020–21 FAFSA

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Believe it or not, you can already fill out the FAFSA for the 2020–21 school year.

As of Oct. 1, 2019, the U.S. Department of Education is accepting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2020–21 school year. This is a must-do for college students in the United States.

Here’s what you need to know before you fill out the 2020–21 FAFSA, why you should do it as soon as possible, and what to expect after you’ve submitted the form.

A group of college students studying on a bench.

Image source: Getty Images

Why should you fill out the 2020–21 FAFSA

The FAFSA is the first step toward getting most forms of student aid. Do you want the ability to take out federal student loans for the 2020–21 school year? You’ll need the FAFSA. Do you want to qualify for Federal Pell Grants or other need-based federal aid programs? Yep, you’ll need the FAFSA.

However, it’s important to mention that the FAFSA can get you a lot more than just federal student loans and grants. If your state has its own scholarship or grant programs, you can be certain that the FAFSA is a requirement. The same is true if your college or university has its own programs.

It’s important to emphasize that filling out a FAFSA is good for just one school year. If you filled out the 2019–20 FAFSA, you still need to complete the 2020–21 FAFSA if you want aid for the 2020–21 school year.

Best of all, the FAFSA is free. Aside from the time it takes to complete it, there’s no cost to you. There’s no reason you shouldn’t fill it out -- even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for any type of aid. Some merit-based aid programs, including many local scholarship programs, also require the FAFSA, so it’s worth completing.

Important dates to know

The Department of Education began accepting the 2020–21 FAFSA on Oct. 1, 2019, and the application deadline is June 30, 2021.

Keep in mind that this is the general federal deadline. Many states have their own deadlines for aid programs, and these can be as early as Jan. 2020. Your school might have its own deadline, as well. What’s more, many state, local, and school-specific programs award aid on a first-come, first-served basis. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

You can find a list of important state deadlines on the FAFSA form itself, but check with your school or potential schools for their deadlines. Better yet, get the FAFSA done as soon as possible.

Why you should fill out the 2020–21 FAFSA right now

It may seem like a long time until the 2020–21 school year. However, the FAFSA opened on Oct. 1, 2019, and it’s in your best interest to submit it as soon as you can.

Here’s why: Many student aid programs are first-come, first-served, especially those offered on the state and local levels. Plus, if you need aid for a specific term (say, the fall 2020 semester), you should submit your FAFSA long before that time comes.

Here’s what you need before applying

While this isn’t an exhaustive list of what you’ll need to fill out the 2020–21 FAFSA, here are some things you’ll definitely need before you get started: 

  • Your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID: This is the username and password you’ll use to log into student-aid-related websites run by the U.S. Department of Education. If you've filled out a FAFSA for prior school years, you likely already have one. If not, you can create one on the Department's student aid website. Your parents will need an FSA ID along with the rest of the information on this list if you’re a dependent student (which will be determined as you’re filling out the FAFSA).
  • Your tax return: For the 2020–21 FAFSA, you’ll need to submit your 2018 tax return. However, you don’t necessarily need to have a copy of your return handy -- the IRS Data Retrieval Tool is integrated into the FAFSA form, so it’s easy to access. Also, gather any other income records that may not be reflected on your tax return (such as child support).
  • Your Social Security number and driver’s license number. (If you have them.)
  • Information about your assets: Include checking and savings account balances, investment accounts, and any other major assets besides your primary home.
  • A list of schools that you might attend: If you’re planning to apply to seven schools, list all seven on the FAFSA. You can list up to 10 schools, so if there’s a remote possibility you’ll attend a school, put it on the list.

How to fill out the 2020–21 FAFSA

There are a few options for filling out the 2020–21 FAFSA, including the option to print it, complete it, and mail it in.

The easiest way to do it is by completing the form electronically on the Federal Student Aid website. Not only does this make the process easier, but there are several other advantages, such as the ability to import your tax return information directly from the IRS. There’s also a myStudentAid mobile app for iOS and Android that you can use.

The FAFSA isn’t exactly a quick and easy form. It takes most people close to an hour to complete a first-time FAFSA and a little less time to complete a renewal. Gathering the proper documentation and information listed in the last section can help speed up the process, but it’s still wise to set aside at least an hour to complete the form.

What to expect after you fill out the FAFSA

After you submit the FAFSA, the information is shared with the schools you listed on your application. Your state’s higher education agency gets a copy, too. So do the agencies in the states where your listed schools are.

The first thing you’ll receive is a Student Aid Report (SAR), which summarizes the information on your FAFSA. Expect this within three weeks of submitting the FAFSA. This won’t have data about your specific financial aid eligibility, but it lets you know that your FAFSA is working its way through the process and gives you a chance to double-check the information on your form.

Next, you’ll receive a financial aid offer from your school. If you're starting college in 2020, you'll get offers from the schools you listed on your FAFSA that you’ve been accepted to. This information might be electronic or it could come as a paper letter. You can accept or decline the aid you’re offered and your school’s financial aid office can give you details about how and when your financial aid will be distributed.

If you’re wondering what’s happening with your 2020–21 FAFSA, you can check the status of your FAFSA form online (wait seven to 10 days if you mailed it) by logging in to the Federal Student Aid portal.

What to do if you still need more money for school

If you receive your award letter from your school and you still need more money to pay for school, there are a few options.

The private student loan industry has grown dramatically in recent years, and it can help supplement your federal and state student aid. Federal student loans are preferable, but if you need more money, you might find some private student loans that are quite competitive with those you can get from the federal government.

And don't forget that you can always get a part-time job to cover some of your tuition and living expenses, too.

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