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How and When to Apply for Financial Aid (Calendar)



A March 30, 2017 announcement from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) indicates that the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) that allows students and families to transfer their federal tax data directly into the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is currently unavailable, and is not expected to come back online before the start of the 2018-19 FAFSA processing cycle in October of 2017.

The FAFSA can still be completed electronically, but income and tax information will need to be entered manually (as was done before the IRS DRT became available). Applicants can complete the 2017-18 FAFSA using either a copy of their 2015 tax returns, data from their 2015 tax software, or information from their 2016-17 FAFSA if they have one on file.

If 2015 tax information is not readily available, applicants can file the FAFSA using estimated tax information and then order an IRS Tax Transcript (either online, by mail or phone), and then use that data to correct/update the FAFSA. Or, they may opt to wait until the IRS DRT becomes available again and use the tool to correct the FAFSA at that point.

Students with questions about FAFSA completion can contact their local ISACorps member, send a text message to the ISAC College Q & A service, or contact an ISAC Call Center Representative.


With planning and organization, you can use financial aid to help make college a reality. Anyone can apply.

Applying for Financial Aid

  • Research financial aid programs early. There are many different types of scholarshipsgrants and loans available, totaling billions of dollars. Start researching during your sophomore and junior years of high school, or one to two years before you plan to start college. You can find information at this website; at your high school’s counseling office; at your college's financial aid office; at  public libraries; or at various lending institutions.
  • Early in your high school senior year, or one year before you start college, contact the financial aid offices at the colleges of your choice for deadlines and additional documents that may be required.
  • Complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), which is available to complete online (preferred method) or in paper format, as soon after October 1 as possible. You must submit this form in order to be considered for all federal financial aid programs, most institutional programs, and most state programs, including the State of Illinois Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant.
    • For academic years that start on or after July 1, 2017, please note that the FAFSA will be available to complete sooner than in prior years, allowing applicants to report earlier tax information. With the new schedule, the 2017-18 FAFSA became available on October 1, 2016 (under the prior schedule, the application would not have been available until January 1, 2017). In addition, students (and parents, as necessary) report their 2015 income information* on the 2017-18 FAFSA (rather than their 2016 income information, which would have been required under the prior system). Further details are provided at the FAFSA Changes for 2017–18 page of the Federal Student Aid (FSA) website.
  • When completing your FAFSA, be sure to list all of the schools you’re interested in attending (a maximum of ten colleges can be listed via FAFSA on the Web and a maximum of four colleges can be listed on the paper FAFSA), even though you may not yet have been notified that you’ve been accepted for enrollment. Also, if you’re a dependent student, be sure to ask your parents to have their tax documents from the appropriate year available in order to have the information needed for your FAFSA and other financial aid forms. If they do not have their tax returns the appropriate year completed in time to apply for financial aid, you can use an estimate of income and taxes to file your FAFSA. You also need to fill out your tax forms in order to have the information needed for the FAFSA.*
  • For specific instructions on how to complete the FAFSA, visit the Filling Out the FAFSA page of Federal StudentAid's
  • If you filed your FAFSA online you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) within one to two weeks after submission. If you filed a paper FAFSA, you will receive a SAR within four to six weeks. Review your SAR carefully and follow the instructions provided. If you need a duplicate SAR, or need to check the status of your application, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800.4FEDAID or 319.337.5665. You can also check the status of your FAFSA online.

* Due to the transition to the use of earlier tax year information, 2015 tax data is used for both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 FAFSAs. It is very important for applicants and parents who are eligible to do so to use the Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) for their 2017-18 FAFSAs, either when initially completing their FAFSA online or later by using the FAFSA online correction process. Using the IRS DRT during the 2016-17/2017-18 transitional period will help foster a smooth application process by dramatically reducing the likelihood of there being conflicting information between the two years. 2016-17 and 2017-18 are the only two FAFSA years that will use the same year’s tax data (2015) – 2016 tax data will be reported on the 2018-19 FAFSA, 2017 tax data will be reported on the 2019-20 FAFSA, etc.

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Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

  • Using the information provided on the FAFSA, the federal government will calculate your family's expected family contribution (EFC), or the amount of money you are expected to be able to contribute toward your college expenses.
  • The EFC is determined by the family's income, assets and size, and takes into consideration the family's living expenses and the number of family members enrolled in college. For an estimate of your EFC, visit FAFSA4caster.
  • The EFC is not a lump sum amount due at the beginning of a school year but, rather, a measure of the family's ability over time to absorb some of the educational costs.
  • For more information regarding the EFC, see Federal Student aid's "The EFC Formula" publication (currently available for the 2017-18 processing cycle).

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Cost of Attendance (COA)

The college determines a Cost of Attendance (COA), which is an estimate of what expenses are usually incurred by students attending that college. Typically, a COA will include tuition, fees, living expense (room and board), books and supplies, and transportation. Each college has a different COA.

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Financial Need

  • The college will then use the EFC and COA as two of the main components when determining the amount and types of financial aid for which you may be eligible. The difference between the COA and EFC is your financial need, or the maximum you can receive in need-based assistance. The financial aid office looks to see which type(s) of aid they can offer you to meet your demonstrated financial need. They will "package" together all of these options and provide them to you for consideration. Check with the financial aid office at your college to see if any additional applications are required for scholarships or other institutional awards.
  • About nine months before starting college, double check your school's deadlines for financial aid.

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Accepting Aid and Admissions Offers

  • During your high school senior year, you’ll receive financial award letters from the colleges you listed on your FAFSA. These award letters will outline the financial aid packages each college can offer you. Once you’ve received the documents, review them carefully with your parents. To help you compare packages and decide which is best for you, use the “Financial Aid Package Comparison Worksheet" (available in English, Spanish and Polish). Although cost shouldn't be the only factor when deciding which college to attend, you'll still need to take it into consideration when making your final selection.
  • Select the college you want to attend.
  • Accept all or part of the financial aid package offered for that college. Follow the instructions provided in the award letter. 
  • If you receive private scholarships, report them [including the source(s) and amount(s)] to your future college’s financial aid office.

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Extra Tips

  • Keep copies of all your completed forms for your records.
  • Don't hesitate to apply for any financial aid for which you feel you may be eligible.
  • You must reapply for financial aid each year, following the steps outlined above.
  • Ask your college’s financial aid office about payment options and tuition payment procedures. The financial aid office is a great resource for finding information related to all types of financial aid, including information about your aid eligibility.
  • If you accept a loan, remember you’ll need to be prepared to pay it back when the time arrives.

You also may be interested in viewing ISAC's "The 4 Steps to College Checklist" (available in English and Spanish).

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