FAFSA •

Updated August 18, 2021

How long does filling the FAFSA take from start to finish? Here's a complete guide.

Learn how long each step in the FAFSA process takes. Including filing your application, processing time, and how long until you receive your aid money.

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Zoe Shewer
Chief Marketing Officer
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Most of us don’t have enough savings or income to pay for our college education upfront, or a parent who can fully fund our higher degree education. That’s where financial aid comes in.

To receive most financial aid, you’ll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). 

Waiting to see how much financial aid money you’re entitled to can be a nerve-wracking experience.Thankfully, there are fairly standard processing times for each step of the FAFSA.

This article will explain how long you should expect each part of the FAFSA process to take, all the way from filling out the application to actually receiving your money. 

You’ll learn how to get your FAFSA application processed as quickly as possible. You’ll also learn how to know once your application has been processed, and how long it'll take if you need to make any corrections to your FAFSA. 

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

It’s a form that you can fill out and submit to the Department of Education (DOE) to find out how much federal financial assistance you qualify for. 

The FAFSA determines this by taking your personal financial information into account and comparing it to how much you’ll need. This includes things like how much money your parents earn and how much they can give you for college.

The FAFSA can be filled out online and submitted electronically, or you can fill it out by hand and mail it to the Department of Education instead.

The DOE will also send your FAFSA to schools that you’ve listed on your application. That way, each college can let you know how much financial assistance you qualify for as a prospective student at their institution. Each school will create its own information package that they send out to students.

In many states, your FAFSA is also used to decide which grants or scholarships you’re eligible for.

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Your FAFSA can help you find out how much financial assistance you’re entitled to from many of the main sources, including many student loans. It’s important to note that FAFSA is not the only way to apply for or receive money for college, but it is an essential starting point. 

Let’s discuss how to apply for the FAFSA in more detail, and what the entire process looks like.

How to apply for the FAFSA

To apply for the FAFSA, your first decision is going to be how you want to fill out the form.

You can manually fill out your FAFSA the old-fashioned way, by hand. Be aware that this involves sending your application form out via mail. Not only does it take longer for you to fill out the FAFSA this way, but the processing time will be longer, too. 

Your other options are to fill out the FAFSA form online at fafsa.gov or using the myStudentAid mobile app. You can download the mobile app to either your Apple or Android device through their respective app stores.

You can also sign up for Mos to get help with your FAFSA. 

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Not only does the Department of Education have a specific deadline for the FAFSA, but individual colleges have their own deadlines as well. 

If you’re planning to attend college next year, it’s best to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible. We recommend October 1, or sometime that month, of the year before you’re going to need financial aid.

Applying early will allow you more time to correct any errors in your application or negotiate your financial aid package.

Colleges also have a limited amount of financial aid to offer prospective students each year, so applying early makes it more likely that you’ll get yours before they run out. 

Don’t wait until the last minute!

How long does it take to fill out the FAFSA? (And what do you need?)

According to Federal Student Aid, it should take you less than 1 hour to fill out and submit an electronic version of the FAFSA.

If you’re filling out a paper version of the FAFSA by hand, expect it to take you more like 3 hours.

But, you can speed up the process by having all of your information and documents ready ahead of time. 

Aside from your social security number (SSN), here are some other things you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA as quickly as possible:

A list of your top 10 schools

Ideally, you should have already figured out your top 10 schools that you want to apply to in advance. That way, you won’t need to do extra research and consider this while filling out your FAFSA.You can add or change schools later, but the sooner you can include them, the better—remember, you want to let them know you’re interested before they’ve already given away all of their grant or scholarship money. 

A Federal Student Aid ID

You can speed up the FAFSA process by creating a Federal Student Aid ID in advance. You’ll need this ID to start the application process. It’s a unique identifier that allows your application to be more easily tied to you.

You can create your FSA ID on fafsa.gov. Sometimes it takes a bit of time between when you create your FSA ID and when it becomes usable, so it’s best to create it a few days in advance before you plan to fill out your FAFSA.

Your parents’ information

If you’re a dependent, the DOE will need to know more about your parents to decide how much financial aid you’re eligible for.

Questions on the FAFSA form will determine whether or not you’re considered a dependent. While the exact questions may change, common factors that will be considered are:

  • Your age

  • Whether or not you’re married

  • Whether or not you have dependents of your own

  • If you’re a veteran

  • If you have no parents or guardians (i.e., you’re emancipated, they’re deceased, etc.)

If you’re a dependent, before you sit down to fill out your FAFSA, gather documents like your parents’ bank statements and W2s to save time. 

Your parents will also need their own FSA IDs to complete the application process. 

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The IRS data retrieval tool

There's information on your / your parents’ previous year’s tax returns that you’ll need to fill out your FAFSA.

The IRS has a data retrieval tool that makes it easy to automatically import your data from last year’s tax return. All of the necessary fields will be pre-populated if you’re filling out the FAFSA online.

This can save you valuable time, instead of having to manually look through your tax return for specific lines and transfer the information to your form.

It also greatly reduces the risk of any discrepancy between amounts you have on file versus what the IRS has on file.

How long does it take for my FAFSA application to get processed?

The biggest factor in how long it'll take to process your FAFSA application is how you’ve applied.

If you file your FAFSA online with an FSA ID, you should receive a link to your Student Aid Report (SAR) in 3–5 days.

If you fill out a paper FAFSA form, your application will usually take 7–10 days to process. But if your paper form doesn’t include your FSA ID, the process can take 3 weeks or longer.

Naturally, we recommend filing online if possible. That way, you can find out what you might have to pay for your college education as soon as possible.

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Including both an FSA ID and a valid email address on your FAFSA will ensure that you receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) back as quickly as possible. Make sure that you include both of these items on your form.

If you don’t provide an email address on your FAFSA, then you’ll have to wait 7 to 10 days to receive a paper copy of your SAR in the mail.

Even if you fill out your form online, if you neglect to sign it with an FSA ID, then receiving your SAR can be delayed by up to 2 weeks.

If your email address is invalid, your SAR will also be delayed. So it’s important to take a few extra moments to verify that all of your information is correct before submitting your form.

Each individual college will also have its own processing time, which can vary and affect your application.

Once the Department of Education receives your FAFSA, they'll calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). 

This number gets sent off to the colleges you’ve listed on your FAFSA to determine what financial aid you’re eligible for. Then, each school you’re accepted to creates a financial aid package for you.

How do I check my FAFSA status or know if my FAFSA was approved? 

You’ll know that your application has been processed and approved when you receive a copy of your Student Aid Report (SAR).

Be sure to review your SAR and make sure that all of the information included is accurate and complete.

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We recommend allowing the estimated amount of time to pass before checking on your FAFSA application. This will vary, depending on how you’ve submitted the form, but it will be at least 3–5 days.

If your application is taking longer than expected, you can check on its status by using your FSA ID to log into fafsa.gov as a returning user. 

Alternatively, you can contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center directly. 

They can be reached via live chat, telephone, or email with the contact details listed here.

How do I receive my FAFSA money?

Once you’re accepted to a specific college, and you’ve decided to attend, you can accept your financial aid through the financial award letter they provide. 

Then, that school will apply any student loan and grant money that you receive to your tuition, room and board for residence, and fees.

If you’ve got any funds from grants or scholarships left over after that, the school will provide it to you. You can choose how to receive that money, and then use it for any other school expenses.

Your school may offer you financial aid in the form of a direct deposit to your bank account, or a check.

To find out the specifics for your college, it’s best to contact their financial aid office directly. Your school’s website should have either a phone number or email address that you can contact them at.

That way, you can find out exactly how much you can expect to be paid out, by which method, and when.

It’s good practice to reach out to the financial aid office regardless. You want to make sure that everything’s in order before any deadlines.

How long does it take to receive FAFSA money? 

The key thing to know is that different types of financial aid will come in at different times throughout the year.

If part of your financial aid package includes a federal loan, you can expect to get that money about 10 days before your classes start. That’s an average, though, and it can vary based on a number of factors.

To get your aid as soon as possible, be sure that you’ve signed your Master Promissory Note (MPN). If you haven’t signed your MPN, your federal student loans may get delayed by several weeks.

For any institutional, state, or federal aid awards, the money will be sent directly to the college that you’re attending first. 

As discussed above, the school will take out any money needed for tuition and other fees upfront. Then any remainder will get sent to you for books, supplies, and other expenses.

These payments are called disbursements. Typically, there will be 2 installments of disbursements per school year. 

If your school uses a semester system, you’ll usually receive disbursements at the beginning of the semester. If not, you’ll receive one payment at the beginning of the academic year and another approximately halfway through the school year.

You can verify how your money has been disbursed in a couple of different ways. 

You can check online through the Department of Education website where you initially submitted your FAFSA application. You should also receive a paper invoice that breaks down how the money is split between yourself and the school.

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It can be stressful to not receive your loan money until 1-2 weeks before classes begin. 

It’s worth noting that if the school doesn’t give you these funds within 7 days of starting classes, they’re required to give you another way to pay for books and supplies so you don’t fall behind.

So if you’ve started class and haven’t received any funds yet, reach out to your school’s financial aid office. You shouldn’t have to cover these costs on your own while you wait.

How long does it take for FAFSA to process corrections? 

If there's any information that’s missing or incorrect on your FAFSA, you should correct it as soon as possible. Most corrections will only take about 10 minutes to make on your end.

Any corrections you make to your FAFSA application online will typically be processed in 3-5 days.

Once your corrections are processed, you’ll receive a revised SAR (Student Aid Report) reflecting the changes.

Conclusion

Knowing how to fill out your FAFSA correctly and accurately is critical to ensure you receive financial aid in time for school to start.

Now you know how to apply, how long the FAFSA process takes, and how financial aid money is distributed.

The FAFSA process can seem confusing and complicated for first-time applicants. 

Mos can help connect you with a financial advisor that will help you with this process.

So while you focus on studying, let us worry about the administrative stuff! We’ll make sure you get all of the free money you’re eligible for to help pay for your college education. 

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