Several schools are seeing a record-breaking number of college applications this year, The New York Times reported today, with the competition for open spots more fierce than ever. An increased demand for admission can mean increased demand for financial aid, so if you need money from grants and student loans to help pay for college, the earlier you can submit your application for financial aid, the better.

It may not be on your list of favorite things to do, but getting your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) filled out and submitted is a must if you want to qualify for federal need-based financial aid like Pell grants, Perkins loans, and Stafford student loans (

FAFSA Deadlines

The U.S. Department of Education will accept the FAFSA anytime between January 1 and June 30, but your state or school may set earlier deadlines. In fact, the FAFSA website encourages you to “apply as soon as possible on or after January 1 to meet college and state aid deadlines.”

Some schools, particularly those with a rolling-admissions program, may award their limited need-based grants, student loans (, and work-study financial aid awards on a first-come, first-served basis or have priority deadlines in place. So the earlier you get your FAFSA in, the more you may be able to maximize your federal financial aid award.

How to Get Started

1. Get a paper FAFSA application from your high school counselor or your financial aid office. Or download the online version from the FAFSA website at:

2. Go to the FAFSA website and sign up for a PIN number at: In order to submit your FAFSA online, you’ll need the PIN to electronically “sign” your FAFSA application. You’ll also need the PIN to make corrections to your information online later, if you need to.

3. Get the documents you need and fill out your FAFSA. The FAFSA will ask you for your previous year’s tax info, as well as your parents’ tax info if you’re a dependent student. If you or your parents haven’t received your W-2s or filed your taxes yet, keep going! The DOE allows you to estimate your income and tax information on the FAFSA and then correct it later if you need to. Submit your completed FAFSA by mail or online.

4. About 4–6 weeks later, you should receive a Student Aid Report in the mail summarizing your FAFSA info. Make corrections, if needed, and submit your SAR for reprocessing.

5. If your application is selected for verification, your financial aid office may ask you to submit tax returns or other documentation. To avoid delays in being awarded your federal grants and college loans (, make sure you meet your school’s deadlines.

If you’re a FAFSA newbie, getting through the application may seem overwhelming at first, but you can get free help from a number of sources: Set an appointment with your high school counselor, call your financial aid office, or contact the U.S. DOE’s Office of Federal Student Aid online at: or by calling 1-800-433-3243.

Life After the FAFSA

If it turns out you’re not eligible for need-based federal aid, you may be able to get the additional funds you need from non–need-based federal college loans, like PLUS loans and unsubsidized Stafford loans.

If your education-related costs still exceed your available federal financial aid, both need-based and non–need-based, you may be able to get the financial assistance you need from private student loans ( . Since federal student loans generally offer more attractive terms than private student loans, though, you should always look into your federal financing options first.

Learn more about Private Student Loans ( and Student Loan Consolidation (

Author's Bio: 

Jeff Mictabor is an enthusiast on the topic of student loan issues in the news. He has been writing for the past 10 years for a variety of education publications. He now offers his writing services on a freelance basis.