December 18, 2021
How long does filing the FAFSA take from start to finish? Here's a complete guide.
Find out how long it takes for the FAFSA to process by reading this Mos guide.
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 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 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.”
This is a form that you can fill out and submit to the US Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Office to find out how much federal financial assistance you qualify for.
The FAFSA determines your eligibility by considering your personal financial information 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 send it in the postal mail to the US Department of Education (DOE) 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.
Your FAFSA can help you find out how much financial assistance you’re entitled to from a lot of the main sources of both federal student aid and state aid, including student loans. It’s important to note that the FAFSA isn’t 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 will be how you want to fill out the form.
One option is to manually fill out your FAFSA the old-fashioned way: by hand. Be aware that this involves sending your application form out via the mail. It takes longer for you to fill out the FAFSA this way, and the processing time will be longer, too.
Your other options are to fill out the FAFSA form online at fafsa.gov or use 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 form.
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 in October) 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 the 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 if you’re considered a dependent.
While the exact questions may change, common factors that’ll be considered are:
Whether you’re married
Whether you have dependents of your own
If you’re a veteran If you have no parents or guardians (like if you’re emancipated or they’re deceased)
If you’re a dependent, you should gather documents like your parents’ bank statements and W2s before you sit down to fill out your FAFSA. It’ll save you a lot of time in the long run.
Your parents will also need their own FSA IDs to complete the application process.
The IRS data retrieval tool
There's information on your or your parents’ previous year’s tax returns that you’ll need in order to finish filling out your FAFSA.
The IRS has a data retrieval tool that makes it easy to import your data from last year’s tax return automatically. 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.
Your SAR is a simple document that outlines all the answers you included on your FAFSA.
If you fill out a paper FAFSA form, your application will usually take 7–10 days to process. But in 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.
Including 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. You should also ensure that you include both items on your form.
If you don’t provide an email address on your FAFSA, then you’ll have to wait between 7 and 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). Your EFC is the amount of money the Federal Student Aid office thinks your family can realistically afford to pay toward your college education.
This number then gets sent off to the colleges you’ve listed on your FAFSA to determine what financial aid you’re eligible for. Afterward, 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.
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’ll 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.
What is a financial aid award letter?
A financial aid award letter is the part of the financial aid process in which you find out which financial award packages you're being offered.
Your financial aid award letter will sometimes be called a “scholarship award letter,” and you'll get one from all of the schools you've been accepted to. Your letter should be sent after your FAFSA has been processed.
Your financial aid award letter details all the scholarships, grants, or loans you're able to receive based on your financial aid eligibility.
What is the FAFSA verification process?
FAFSA verification is the process your college uses to confirm that the information you reported on your FAFSA form was accurate.
Don't get worried or offended if you're informed that you need to take part in the verification process. Some schools choose students randomly, while others verify every incoming student.
If you're selected for verification, your college will normally ask for verification documents that support the details you included in your FAFSA form. You may also need to complete and send in a household verification form, which is used to confirm details about your household size and family income.
How do I receive my FAFSA money?
Once you’re accepted to a specific college and have decided to attend, you can accept your financial aid through the financial award letter they provide.
That school will then apply any student loan and grant money 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 them to you. You can choose how to receive that money and use it for 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. After all, 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. When you actually receive it can vary based on several different 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.
What is an MPN?
Simply put: an MPN is a legal document that you sign. It shows that you have agreed to pay back a student loan you’re taking out. That means when you sign an MPN, you effectively agree to all of the terms and conditions of that loan. Most importantly, you’re not only promising that you'll pay back the loan—but you’re also promising to repay any interest and fees as outlined in the original terms and conditions.
Filling out and submitting a Master Promissory Note is fast and simple. You can do it online using your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID, which normally only takes a few minutes.
For any institutional, state, or federal aid awards, the money will be sent directly to the college that you’re attending first.
As we’ve already pointed out, the school will take out any money needed for tuition and other fees upfront.
Any remainder will then get sent to you for your books, supplies, and other expenses.
These payments are called “disbursements.” Typically, there’ll 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.
Your first option is to check online through the US 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 you and the school.
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 the cost of attendance 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.
Knowing how to correctly and accurately out your FAFSA is critical to ensuring 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.
But we understand that the FAFSA process can seem pretty confusing and complicated for first-time applicants. That’s where Mos can really come to the rescue.
Mos can help connect you with a private advisor that’ll 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.
What are you waiting for? Join Mos today.