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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

As soon as you've wrapped up your college applications, you should plan to file your FAFSA. FAFSA stands for "Free Application for Federal Student Aid" - but we like to think of it as “Financial Aid's First Step Always.” Families sometimes avoid filing a FAFSA because they don't think they'll qualify for federal aid. But the FAFSA does more than determine your eligibility for federal student aid (student loans, grants and federal Work-Study programs) - most schools also use the FAFSA to help decide your eligibility for scholarships and non-federal student aid. And states often use the FAFSA to determine state aid. Please check with for updates to the FAFSA process.

Some colleges and universities require additional forms such as the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE®. Please check with your school to see if additional information is required in addition to the FAFSA.

Find out more:

Step 4 - The Financial Aid Award Letter

The next part of the financial aid process begins when you receive your financial aid award letters from your top schools. Award letters indicate how much funding and what types of aid you're eligible to receive from each school.

An award letter is typically made up of the following sections:

  • Financial calculations
    A summary of the cost of education for that school is calculated, including tuition and fees, books and supplies, living expenses, transportation and personal costs. The cost of education will be different for each school.
  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
  • Financial need
    This figure reflects the cost of education minus the EFC. This figure reflects your eligibility for need-based financial assistance at each school. Financial need varies from school to school because the cost of education varies by school.
  • Financial awards:
    • Grants from the federal or state governments or the school
    • Scholarships
    • Eligibility for federal Work-Study - money earned by working during the course of the year
    • Federal loans and private student loans - borrowed money that must be repaid after leaving school

Understanding the Award Letter

Within two weeks of receiving an award letter, you should inform your school whether you are accepting or declining the awards. You don't need to accept everything offered, but if you decline anything, the school typically will not replace it with other types of aid. Occasionally, Work-Study and loans are negotiable, but grants and scholarships are not.

If your or your parents' financial circumstances have changed since the completion of the FAFSA, it's very important to inform the financial aid office.

Items to Consider

  • Are the grants and scholarships in the award letter renewable? What are their terms and conditions? If they are renewable, what is the renewal process? If not, what financing options can be substituted for them after the first year of college?
  • If the college can not meet your total financial need, can this amount be earned or will you need a loan?
  • How much loan aid is offered? What are the terms and conditions? What is the interest rate? Are there any deferment, cancellation or forgiveness policies?
  • If Work-Study has been awarded, is this a realistic option?
  • Once you have decided which school you will attend, the other schools to which you applied should be notified so that they can offer admission and financial aid to other eligible applicants.

For More Information

Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC)
1-800-4-FED-AID (433-3243)
Monday through Friday: 8am to midnight
Saturdays: 9am to 6pm Eastern time

FAFSA on the Web
The government offers a detailed, question-by-question guide to filling out the paper and online FAFSA.

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You are encouraged to explore all scholarship, grant and federal borrowing options before applying for a private loan.

PNC does not provide accounting, tax or legal advice.