How to Get Pell Grants

Three Parts:Qualifying for AidCompleting the PaperworkStaying Eligible

Pell grants are money for education you don't have to pay back. WOOHOO! How do you get one? All you really have to do is file your FAFSA -- but to be sure you're getting as much money as possible, read on.

Part 1
Qualifying for Aid

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    Enroll as an undergraduate student. Once you've completed high school or gotten your GED and have been accepted into a college or university, you can enroll as a student. Pell grants are mainly for undergrads, but certain students (namely those in teaching programs) qualify for them at the master's level.
    • It doesn't matter whether you're full-time, part-time, or even less than part time! Though the amount of money will decrease with fewer credit hours being taken, you'll still qualify.[1]
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    For males, register with the Selected Service. This is just part of growing up as an American male. You have to register for the Selected Service at some point between the ages of 18 and 25.[2] If you want federal aid, that time is now! (Just have your SSN at the ready.)
    • As with anything that's even semi up-to-date, you can do it online. While women are more than welcome into combat positions nowadays, they are still exempt from having to sign up. Legal aliens, on the other hand, are not exempt, and too must register.
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    Prove you're a citizen (or an eligible non-citizen). In order to fill out the FAFSA, you'll need documentation that you're a US citizen or otherwise eligible. You'll need a valid Social Security number unless you're from the Marshall Islands, Palau, or Micronesia.[2]
    • If you are not a US citizen, you will need a green card, an arrival-departure record, battered immigrant status, OR a T-Visa (or a parent with a T-1 Visa).[2]
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    Meet the financial requirements. When you file the FAFSA, little government elves go to work, calculating your expected family contribution, or EFC. That number is subtracted from the cost of attendance, and after a few other considerations (dependent status, etc.), your EFC is determined.[3] If your number is greater than $5,081 (for 2013-14), you do not qualify for a Pell grant.[4]
    • Households that make less than $24,000 will have an EFC of zero.[4] For more information on the EFC and how its calculated, the Department of Education has formula guides online.[5]
    • You won't really know what your EFC is until you try -- so even if you think you or your family's income is too high, apply anyway! No harm, no foul. Generally, families that make up to $50,000 or so qualify.[6]

Part 2
Completing the Paperwork

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    Act promptly. As long as you meet your school's financial aid deadline, you'll receive your Pell grant in full. However, it's always a good idea to get these things done sooner rather than later. The FAFSA can be filed (and the Pell grant thusly applied for) as soon as January 1st of each year.[7] The closer you are to that date, the better off you'll be.
    • Other loans, however, are first come, first served. When you get your award letter from your institution, they may have given you other grants -- the likelihood of which is maximized if you act quickly.
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    Gather up your important documents. You'll need your social security card, tax information and pay stubs if available. If you have yet to file taxes for the year, you can give your estimated tax information based on last year, but you'll need to update eventually.
    • If you are a non-citizen, you'll need your records, such as you green card, to complete the FAFSA.
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    Create a personal identification number, or pin. This is your "federal student aid pin." It can be obtained here. This will be your number for the rest of your college career. Even though you'll file the FAFSA each year, you'll use the same pin over and over.
    • If you are a dependent, your parent(s) will need a pin, too.
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    Go to FAFSA's website.[8] Enter your pin and start filling out the form! This takes about 30 minutes to fill out and is pretty straightforward. You may fill it out on paper, but doing it online is much, much, much quicker.[7]
    • You'll be asked personal questions (like your address (tough one!)), financial questions, and then your parents will have to answer questions, too. Nothing too prying!
      • You can fill out the FAFSA if you haven't been accepted (or done the accepting to) anywhere yet. Up to ten schools may be listed on the form.[7]
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    Wait for your SAR. It should only take a few days to see your student aid report, or SAR. In fact, you can start checking the status online as soon as you submit your FAFSA. Once you get your SAR, you'll know how much aid you'll receive.
    • This is the part where you get notified of your EFC. It doesn't mean you have to pay it though! At least not right now. It's just used to calculate aid.
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    Get award letters from your schools. Each school that you were accepted to will notify you of the aid you qualify for (if you listed them on your FAFSA). Most likely, each school will be different. When you filled out the FAFSA, each school you list was be notified of your information and is therefore able to award you accordingly. If you've been accepted to more than one, weigh them against each other!
    • If you qualified for the Pell grant, you will get it from every school. Each student that qualifies gets the amount they qualify for. However, cheaper schools may result in smaller grants.[6]
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    Let your school handle the processing. Once you've enrolled in a specific school, the aid will come to you. Your school will either issue you a check, apply the funds to your student account, or a mixture of both. It usually happens once per term.[9]
    • For the record, the maximum amount anyone can receive is $5,635 (2013-2014).[9] And, of course, you can only receive it from one school at a time.

Part 3
Staying Eligible

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    Keep your grades up and record clean. Though every student who qualifies "will receive their grant in full," there are a few small exceptions.[7] The government likes to know you're going to stick to your word -- if you're failing out of college, they may deem you a lost cause and cease aid. What's more, the better your grades, the more other grants you may receive, so it's just good common sense.
    • If you receive a criminal conviction while you're a student, your eligibility may change. Don't assume you can't get funds, but do know that it may be more difficult. It all depends on your specific situation.[10]
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    Finish in six years. You are only eligible for Pell grants for 12 semesters, or six years. They do not have to be consecutive, but that is the limit. You will receive a notification if you are nearing the checkpoint.[9]
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    File every year. In order to receive loans and grants, you have to file the FAFSA every year. This is because your tax information may change and has to be accounted for. Though you'll use the same pin, you still have to file.
    • Act quickly. Though the Pell grant is not awarded on a first come, first served basis, it is best to do it as quickly as possible.[4] The earlier you apply, the more other grants you may receive.


  • Be prompt about these things. The more time you have to assess the situation, the more prepared you'll feel.
  • If you are under 25, you will need your parents' tax information (unless you are emancipated or without a legal guardian).
  • You can also complete a PDF FAFSA (Note: PDF FAFSAs must be mailed for processing) or Request a paper FAFSA by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 319-337-5665. If you are hearing impaired, contact the TTY line at 1-800-730-8913.


  • If you have a felony of any kind, you will need to explain but may not necessarily be disqualified.
  • This requires acceptance to a higher education program, including community colleges.

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Categories: Budgeting and Financial Aid for College | Money Grants