Are you getting ready to head to college? If so, like many prospective students, you're probably busy figuring out how to pay for tuition, books, fees, and more.
With the high cost of college, it can take multiple sources to secure financing for the entire balance. One of the best ways to get started is to fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and you should plan on carving out time in your busy schedule to ensure it’s completely accurately, as well as it can take time to hear back with the results.
What's the bottom line about the FAFSA form you laboriously complete and send in? The shortest answer to that question is, “it depends.” But, what does it depend on? For starters, it matters whether you file online or send the paperwork in via the mail. If you opt for e-filing, expect to get a response within a week or two. But, if you choose the old-fashioned method of sending the documents through standard mail, it might be three full weeks or longer before you hear back.
Your main goal, what you're waiting for, is something called an SAR, or Student Aid Report. Online filers will receive an email with a link to their SAR. Paper filers will also get a link, but will receive it via the same slow mail service through which they sent in their FAFSA.
The online method for transmitting your all-important documentation is more efficient, as that way, you'll slice about two weeks off the waiting period. Here's more about the best way to file, how long the entire process takes, when colleges will get your data, when you might receive a financial aid offer from the schools that interest you, the timing for receipt of your funds, and some suggestions for streamlining the whole endeavor.
The Best Way to File Your FAFSA
Expect to spend at least two hours collecting all the information you'll need to complete your very first FAFSA application. If you've done one before, it might just take an hour to finish. However, if you choose the online filing option and already have the data at your fingertips, it's possible to do it all in well under an hour. Allow about 15 minutes to make corrections and hunt down a stray piece of data that the form requires but you didn't plan for. With complicated financial paperwork, there's always something that seems to pop up right toward the end. So, plan ahead when you sit down to face the blank forms, boxes, and lines.
Most who accurately complete a FAFSA package of forms will receive the all-important Student Aid Report somewhere between one and three business weeks. In actual days, you're looking at a period between three and fifteen days in most cases. The key determinant is how you file (electronically or by paper) and how you choose to receive the link to your SAR (electronically or by mail). Depending on the balance you’re approved for, you can opt for a private student loan to cover the remainder of your expenses, as it's simple to use an online calculator and come up with an estimate of what your post-graduation payments will be.
Knowing the details about repayment periods, payment amounts, and other pertinent factors give you the peace of mind to focus on coursework and complete a degree successfully. As you are looking for federal aid, remember that there are three components to focus on. They are the Student Aid Report (SAR), how colleges get your data, and when you get your money.
The SAR: Student Aid Report
Want your SAR back asap? Of course, you do. Here are three ways to streamline the receipt of the information: do the federal aid package online, submit it with a current email address that you check every day, and use the FSA ID to sign the form before you submit it. You can opt to accept a computer-generated FSA ID number or create your own. Don't lose or forget it! This ID number lets you gain access to all your federal aid info and sign pertinent documents. Using this coded signature immensely speeds things up, which means getting your funds much faster and with fewer hassles.
Even then, after filing electronically and using the coded FSA ID to sign, be sure to include a valid, active email address. If you don't include an email address, or don't sign with the ID code, don't expect to get your SAR for between one and three weeks, perhaps longer. You can speed everything up by signing with an FSA ID, including a valid email address, and submitting the document online.
When Colleges Receive Your Information
There are plenty of acronyms when it comes to applying for federal funds. When you finally gain access to your SAR, you'll see a section labeled “EFC.” This is a vital component of the report. It lists your Expected Family Contribution. In plain English, that's the amount the agency determined that you or your family can afford to pony up for tuition and fees.
Remember that every college you listed on the original form will see your SAR and your full EFC data. The schools use that information to figure out how much money they're willing to offer you in financial aid funds. This is why FAFSA is such an important thing. It literally determines what all your select schools will be, or not be, offering you in the form of aid.
Once your FAFSA is completely processed, any of the schools you listed can retrieve data from it electronically. Every institution has its own time line for evaluating the information, deciding whether to offer you funds, and how much to offer. Aid offices are very busy places because they receive hundreds of requests for funding each week of the year. Even so, if three or more weeks go by after you file your FAFSA forms, consider calling the aid offices of your target colleges to see if they received and processed your data, or if they need anything else from you to move forward.
Securing Your Financial Aid Package
The majority of applicants for aid list multiple colleges on their documents. College aid officers realize this, which is why they don't offer funds to everyone who asks. This is particularly true for first-year students who have not yet made a final decision about where to attend. If you do receive an offer from one of your preferred colleges, pay close attention to the deadline. While many use May 1st as a default cutoff date, some schools have earlier deadlines. If you miss the date, it's possible that you might forfeit your chance to get aid money from a particular institution.
Keep in mind that school finance workers are real people with real jobs. This can work to your advantage. If your top one or two schools have not responded as quickly as you'd like, consider phoning them and asking if they received your paperwork. It can help to let them know they are your top school, but of course there are no guarantees about what result this tactic might bring. It may work, or at least can’t hurt to try.
When You Will See Your Funds
There are several factors at play here as well. The timing can be very last-minute because many applicants don't receive their loan money until one to two weeks before classes begin. Of course, this assumes that you are in fact eligible for a loan through FAFSA, that you already signed the official promissory note, and completed all paperwork.
If anything is incomplete, omitted, was lost in the mail, or otherwise deficient with the app, even if you simply neglected to sign the promissory note, it's possible you won't receive approved funds for three or four weeks. That could mean being short when payment is required by the college finance offices. If something like this happens, be sure to explain the situation in detail to the school you're attending. It's often possible to work out an arrangement to attend courses while waiting for funds to arrive.
How to Speed Up the Process
Like all bureaucratic systems, there are some tried-and-true shortcuts for getting through the FAFSA complexity. Here's a list of targeted tips that will minimize your waiting time and give you the best possible chance of getting the results you want:
- If a few weeks go by and you hear nothing from anyone at your chosen colleges, phone the finance offices of the schools and see if they need more info. Sometimes, the offices will send you a snail-mail letter that takes up to a week to reach you. Simply using the telephone to contact the school can cut several days off the timeline.
- File the Original FAFSA Document Online
- Before you file, double-check every line of the application for accuracy. In the hurry to secure financing, it's easy to forget a key item, misspell an essential word, omit a necessary bit of information, or something else. Ask a trusted friend or relative to look through the form and scan it for errors and omissions.
- Check your email inboxes, phone messages, and home mailbox for any communication from college aid offices. It's imperative to respond as quickly as possible if they contact you for more information or for any other reason.
- Make a list of every deadline (there are several) for both the FAFSA application and individual college aid systems. Don't let anything slip through the cracks or you risk lengthening the time to get your funds to pay for college.
Final Thoughts on How Long it Takes to Process a FAFSA
For most students, completing a FAFSA is the first step in getting the funding they need to attend college.
Depending on how you file, it can take anywhere from one week to over four weeks to process your FAFSA. If you're looking to expedite the process, choose to e-file your FAFSA and ensure their are no mistakes on your form.