Thinking about college is exciting. It’s a time to follow your dreams and learn and grow in ways that will impact the rest of your life. But trying to understand the financial jargon involved with paying for college can be mind-boggling. FAFSA? EFC? COA? What do they all mean?

Don’t fret; we’ve got you covered.

FAFSA = Free Application for Federal Student Aid

FAFSA is the application high school juniors and seniors (or anyone who plans to go to college in the next two years) fill out to determine how much financial aid the government will offer them to help pay for college. This money comes in the form of grants, work-study, and loans. You’ll need to fill out a FAFSA each year that you attend college.

If this is the first time you’ve heard of FAFSA, you’re not alone. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, 58 percent of students said they weren’t familiar with FAFSA, and 55 percent weren’t sure whether they needed to fill one out for college.

All students should complete a FAFSA, according to Lucy Candal-Fernandez, associate director of student financial aid at MontClair State University in New Jersey.

“Families are often surprised that the FAFSA takes less time to complete than anticipated and that all students who complete a FAFSA will be eligible for some type of financial assistance, unless they have previously defaulted on [failed to pay] a student loan,” she says.

That’s good news for students like Nicole, a junior in Brooklyn, New York, who has started thinking about paying for college. “I think that I will be paying for college by student loans, my parents, or help from FAFSA,” she says.

FAFSA offers financial aid in the following forms:

Grants. These do not need to be paid back. Most grants are given to students based on their family’s financial need. There are also merit-based grants, which are awarded based on a student’s academic achievement and/or commitment to service and leadership qualities. The federal government and some state governments offer grants.

Examples of how grants work: The Pell Grant and TEACH Grant
The federal government offers the Pell Grant to low-income families. The maximum Pell Grant for the 2017–2018 academic year will be $5,920. The amount students will be awarded depends on their financial need, cost of attending their chosen school, status as a full-time or part-time student, and plans to attend school for a full academic year or less.

The TEACH Grant provides up to $4,000 per year to students who are completing (or plan to complete) the coursework required for a teaching career and who agree to teach for at least four years in a low-income area.

More about grants and free money for college 


Work-study provides students with a job, on or off campus. The money they’re paid for working is intended to go toward education costs, such as tuition, fees, and room and board. More about work-study

Loans granted through FAFSA are money the federal government lends to students to help pay for school. These loans have to be paid back to the government over a period of time, with interest (an additional fee) added, usually beginning after the student graduates.

There are two types of loans: Subsidized and unsubsidized
  • Subsidized loans are the better of the two options. They are available to undergraduate students based on “financial need” (the difference between the cost of attending your college and how much money your family can contribute). While you’re attending college at least half-time, the government pays the interest on your subsidized loans. After you graduate, there is a six-month “grace period” where the government continues to pay the interest, but afterward, you are responsible for paying off the loan and the interest.
  • Unsubsidized loans are available to undergraduate and graduate students and are not based on financial need. Your school determines the amount you can borrow based on your cost of attendance and other financial aid you get. You have to pay all of the interest on these loans (unlike subsidized loans), including the interest that is charged while you’re in school.

More on subsidized and unsubsidized loans  

“Understanding the difference between grants, work-study, and loans can be confusing,” says Eduardo Brambila, managing director of partnerships at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission in Deerfield. “We often think of financial aid as free money, but that’s not always the case,” he says. “If student loans make up a big portion of your financial aid packet, it’s important to remember that you’ll have to pay those back.”

Your step-by-step guide to submitting your FAFSA

The FAFSA ID allows you to electronically access your personal information on Federal Student Aid websites and electronically sign the FAFSA. You’ll need to create a username and password, and a parent will need to electronically sign the FAFSA before you submit. To do this, your parent will also need to create a FAFSA ID.

“Write down what your username and password are, as well as the answers to the security questions you input,” says Brambila. “If you happen to lose this information, it will take 7 to 14 days to get a new one because it will only be mailed to you and will not be given over the phone.”

The FAFSA ID will remain the same throughout the time you are in college, even if you decide to go on to graduate school. “A parent’s FAFSA ID will also remain the same and will remain unchanged when other children within the family apply for financial aid through the FAFSA,” says Candal-Fernandez.

Once you create an ID, set aside about 45 minutes to complete the FAFSA.

“There’s not a lot of mystery or ways to prepare for applying,” says Brambila. “Have what you need in front of you, such as your parent’s income tax information and yours, if you file income tax. You’ll also need to put in balances for your savings and checking accounts. That’s the only information you need aside from what’s in your head already.”

When questions about income come up, Brambila recommends using the IRS Retrieval Tool within the FAFSA. “It will ask if the student (and parent) want to get their income information right from the IRS,” he says. It will verify your identity through a series of questions and then “FAFSA will retrieve the tax information from the IRS without making the applicant leave the FAFSA website. It reduces the amount of errors and is very easy.”

Other tips to keep in mind when applying:

Use your full name. Include the full name that is on your birth certificate, and avoid using shortened versions of your name or nicknames.

Know your citizenship status. FAFSA will ask what your citizenship status is and will clearly define the options, but it’s helpful to think about this before you apply. The options will include something like the following:

  • A US citizen, meaning you were born in the United States or you were granted citizenship later on.
  • An eligible noncitizen, meaning you are a legal resident (e.g., you have a Permanent Resident Card/green card) or hold a visa that determines you as an eligible noncitizen (e.g., a T-visa). Note that most types of visas do not qualify for student aid from the federal government.
  • Not an eligible noncitizen, meaning you are an undocumented immigrant and don’t have a valid visa or you are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) legislation and do not qualify for federal aid.

While undocumented students, including DACA recipients, are not eligible for federal student aid, they may be eligible for state or college aid, as well as private scholarships. Learn more here. 

Mark “yes” to work-study. FAFSA has a question that will ask if you are interested in work-study. Brambila recommends that all students check “yes,” since everyone is eligible and work-study money is offered on a first-come, first-serve basis per school. Checking “yes” does not mean you are required to take a work-study job.

“If the student says ‘yes’ to work-study and then backs out, that’s OK, but if the student answers ‘no’ and then second semester decides he [or she] wants it, there is the potential for the money to no longer be there,” says Brambila.

Start your FAFSA here. 

Once you fill out all the questions on the form, it’s time to hit “Submit.”

Right before you submit it, FAFSA will ask you to include up to 10 schools you want the results sent to.

“It’s good to know before you sit down and apply, but if you don’t, it’s not a problem. You can add or take out schools on your list at any point,” says Brambila.

Once you submit the application, you’ll get a confirmation number and will be notified if you’re eligible for the Pell Grant or other federal grants. You’ll also immediately receive your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is an amount schools use to figure out how much financial aid you could receive if you attend their school. (See below for an explanation of EFC.)

How EFC and Financial Need (FN) are calculated

The EFC is calculated using…

  • Your family’s taxed and untaxed income
  • Your family’s assets and benefits (such as unemployment or Social Security benefits)
  • Your family size and the number of people in your family who will be in college at the time
Using the EFC to determine financial need

Let’s assume your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is $1,000. Now, consider that every school’s Cost of Attendance (COA) varies. COA includes tuition, room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and miscellaneous personal expenses. With that in mind, Brambila says, look at the EFC this way:

“Say School A has a COA of $40,000 a year. School B has a COA of $20,000 a year. And School C has a COA of $10,000 a year. The COA changes at every school, but the EFC stays the same,” he says.

When you subtract your EFC from each school’s COA, you will get what’s called your Financial Need (FN).

In the sample schools above, this means your FN would be the following:

School A: $40,000 (COA) $1,000 (EFC) = $39,000 (FN)

School B: $20,000 (COA) $1,000 (EFC) = $19,000 (FN)

School C: $10,000 (COA) $1,000 (EFC) = $9,000 (FN)

The schools you apply to will use the calculation above to determine your financial need.

When should I apply?

High school juniors and seniors, or anyone applying for college in the next two years, should keep these dates in mind:

For the 2017–2018 school year, you can fill out a FAFSA between now and June 30, 2018. For the 2018–2019 school year, the FAFSA will become available on October 1, 2017, and must be filled out by June 30, 2019.

Always submit your FAFSA as early as possible to ensure you meet state and college deadlines and to increase your chances of receiving work-study aid, which is granted on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Give me an estimate

If you’re anxious to get an idea of how much financial aid you’ll qualify for before filling out the FAFSA, the FAFSA4caster tool will provide you with an estimate.

What if you have changes to report after you submit your FAFSA?

“If a student has a special circumstance that occurred after the initial FAFSA filing which may increase eligibility, the student should contact a Financial Aid Office administrator for assistance,” says Candal-Fernandez.

What do freshmen and sophomores need to know?

While you may not be able to fill out the FAFSA until your junior or senior year of high school, there are ways you can get a jump-start on college planning.

“CollegeGreenlight.com is a free site that allows you to create a profile and research colleges,” says Brambila. “You can ‘tag’ schools you’re interested in, and it will start matching you with schools around the country that might be a good fit,” he says.

The site provides tuition fees, how much financial aid schools usually give, graduation rates, contact information for admissions offices, deadline dates, and more.

Best of all, it will match you up with potential scholarships based on your profile. “I think it’s the best database for scholarships. There are many small scholarships out there that College Greenlight informs students about,” he says.

“How I plan to pay for college”

We asked high school students how they plan to pay for school. Here’s what they had to say. 

“I work extremely hard in order to earn grants and scholarships. I am trying to take multiple Advanced Placement classes [and] join many clubs and sport teams. However, I am keeping in mind the possibility of a student loan. I do not want any help from my family, since I want to learn to be independent from a young age.” —Maya, freshman, Brooklyn, New York

“[I] will apply for FAFSA as well as grants, scholarships, and probably loans. My family will help but has many costs for a disabled family member.”
—Jake, junior, Concord, Massachusetts

“I am hoping to go to college on athletic and education scholarships. To pay for the leftover fees, I will use loans. My family will help if I need it, but I will have to pay for the majority of my college education.”
—Bethany, sophomore, Anthem, Arizona

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Article sources

Eduardo Brambila, managing director of partnerships at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, Deerfield, Illinois.

Lucy Candal-Fernandez, associate director of student financial aid at Montclair State University, Montclair, New Jersey.

Federal Student Aid. (n.d.). Federal Student Aid glossary. Retrieved from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/glossary

Federal Student Aid. (n.d.). Subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Retrieved from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/loans/subsidized-unsubsidized#subsidized-vs-unsubsidized

Federal Student Aid. (n.d.). Student aid report. Retrieved from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/next-steps/student-aid-report.

Federal Student Aid. (n.d.). Federal Student Aid login. Retrieved from https://fafsa.ed.gov/FAFSA/app/fafsa?locale=en_US

Federal Student Aid. (n.d.). FAFSA filing options. Retrieved from https://fafsa.ed.gov/options.htm

US Department of Education. (n.d.). Federal Pell Grant program. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/programs/fpg/index.html

US Department of Education. (n.d.). 2 major FAFSA® changes you need to be aware of. HomeRoom [blog]. Retrieved from http://blog.ed.gov/2016/08/2-major-fafsa-changes-need-aware/