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101 - What You Need to Know

The most important weapon in your financial aid arsenal is a properly completed financial aid form. Although the forms you'll need to complete and submit will vary by school, the two that are used most often are the FASFA and the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. Although these student financial aid forms are both used to assess need, they are used differently by the schools that require them. Here's what you need to know about each.

The FAFSA Financial Aid Form

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FASFA is the form that virtually all colleges will require you to submit when applying for aid. In fact submitting the FASFA financial aid form is the only way you can apply for most types of federal aid. This includes all need-based aid, as well as most federal loans. In addition, many schools use only the FASFA to calculate your entire financial aid package, including both federal and non-federal sources of aid and determine financial aid eligibility.

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The first step to complete the FASFA financial aid form is to access the form online at www.fafsa.ed.gov or to obtain a hardcopy from a local public library, a high school guidance counselor's office, or a college financial aid office. If you will apply online using FASFA on the Web, you will need to get a Personal Identification Number (PIN) access code first. This PIN will serve as an online signature and will allow you to access you application online after you submit it to make corrections and check your data.

Completing the FAFSA should take you a matter of hours if you're prepared before you start. You and/or your parents (if you're a dependent student) should have your important financial documents handy. These include bank statements, federal income tax returns, W-2s, untaxed income records, mortgages, and any other records of assets or income. In addition you'll need to list driver's license numbers and social security numbers for yourself and your parents (if you're a dependant). Furthermore if you or your parents aren't U.S. citizens you'll also need your alien registration or permanent resident cards. And finally you'll need the federal school codes for the schools you're applying to.

The FAFSA financial aid form can be submitted starting January 1 of each year. The deadline, however, changes every year. For the 2007-2008 school year the deadline is June 30, 2008. But don't wait until the last minute because much of the aid distributed by schools is done so on a first come, first serve basis to those who qualify. So try to submit your FAFSA as close to January 1 as possible, but not a day before as it will only be rejected and you'll have to submit it again.

When you submit the FAFSA before you and/or your parents submit your federal income tax returns from the prior year you'll be required to update the information down the road. No need to worry, this is common and it's easy to make adjustments after your tax forms are filed.

Once your FAFSA financial aid form has been processed you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR will summarize the information you submitted on your application and will provide you with an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC indicates how much money the federal government expects your family to be able to contribute towards the cost of your education for that year. Schools that you indicate on your FAFSA will also receive a copy of your EFC to consider as they process your financial aid award.

The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE

To be considered for financial aid other than federal aid, you may be required to submit the College Board's CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE which is available at www.collegeboard.com. Although some of the information you'll submit during the registration process is similar to that required on the FASFA, these student financial aid forms are actually quite different. After you register you'll be provided with a personalized CSS PROFILE form based on the information you provided. This will include questions that are specific to your financial situation thus allowing you an opportunity to fully explain your individual financial circumstances.

The CSS PROFILE form can only be submitted online. If you don't have access to a computer at home, you will have to access it at school or elsewhere. The PROFILE form can be submitted well in advance of your other financial aid forms. In fact you can file it as early as October 1 of the year prior to the school year you're applying for. But since a fee is charged for each school that receives the information generated from the PROFILE, you should be careful with the number of schools you tell CSS to send a report to.

According to the College Board over 600 schools and scholarship programs use its PROFILE to award funds. If you're like most students, you're undoubtedly applying to a number of different schools. That said there is a good chance you will have to submit a CSS PROFILE form.

In addition to the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE form, you may be required to submit a few additional financial aid forms to the schools you are applying to. These forms can be very simple and used to verify information about your family's income and budget or to verify that you have a sibling attending college at the same time. If you're applying to state schools, you may also be required to submit certain forms to access state-funded programs, especially in state tuition programs.

Although it can take a little while to complete all of the financial aid forms you'll be required to submit, there's nothing more important to do. Because these forms and the time you dedicate to filling them out properly can save you thousands of dollars. That's worth anyone's Saturday afternoon.

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