Do you speak FAFSA?

You probably took French, Spanish, or some other foreign language in high school, right? But, what they really should’ve offered was a course on how to speak financial aid. With all those acronyms being tossed around, you might as well be reading hieroglyphs. Even some of the “normal” words can be a bit confusing. But, don’t worry. We’re here to give you a crash course in how to speak FAFSA. Here’s what you need to know.


it's free
Free money is the best money! Courtesy of

If you’ve read some of our previous articles, this should be a no-brainer for you. FAFSA actually stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The key words here is FREE, as in you should NEVER pay to complete this form.


daddy's money
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Once you complete the FAFSA, you will be given an EFC (Expected Family Contribution). But, don’t freak out. Notice the word is “expected” and not “required.” It is NOT the amount of money you will need to pay for college (it could actually be more or less). It is merely an indication of your family’s financial strength, and it’s calculated by a formula established by law. Your EFC will help determine your eligibility for federal financial aid.


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Your Student Aid Report (SAR) is sent to you (usually by email) once you complete the FAFSA. It is a summary of all the information you provided and should be reviewed very carefully. Your EFC will be displayed in the upper right-hand corner of the report, and this information will be available to colleges within a day after you receive it. If you find any errors on your SAR, you will need to update or correct your FAFSA.


fafsa terms
Not to be confused with DNR. Courtesy of

Your DRN (Data Release Number) is also located on your SAR (first page, upper right-hand corner). This four-digit number is important, especially if you want a college to receive your FAFSA information. You can add a college to the list of those receiving your report by contacting a Federal Student Aid rep at 1-800-4-FED-AID or by giving your DRN to a financial aid officer at the college you wish to attend. You will also need your DRN if you allow your college to make certain changes to your FAFSA.

Federal work-study

work study
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When you fill out the FAFSA, you will be asked if you are interested in work-study opportunities. Always say YES. Why? If you find that you need additional financial assistance, your college may be able to help you obtain employment on or off campus. These positions tend to pay higher than minimum wage and are more flexible with your student schedule.

Other terms you need to know

Two common terms you will come across when dealing with college financial aid are financial need and COA, otherwise known as cost of attendance. Both are very important when determining how much financial aid you will receive each year. Your cost of attendance factors in things like tuition, fees, books, housing, meal plans, transportation/travel, and even student loan fees. And because each college is unique, your COA will be different for each school on your list. Your financial need is simply the difference between your COA and EFC (remember that pesky number?). For example, if the COA at a college is $42,000 and your EFC is $4,800, your financial need would be $37,200.

A college may offer a financial aid package that includes grants, scholarships, and student loans to help meet that need. But, no two colleges are alike, so it’s a good idea to compare offers and determine which will give you the best return on your education before you decide which school is right for you.

Still have questions? Ask away! We’re here to help, so give us a shout out on Twitter or in the comment section below.

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