Yes, the new year. And with it, resolutions, fresh starts, W-2s in the mail, and the annual preparation and submission of college financial aid forms.

January marks the official start of the college financial aid season (though the eager high school student started searching and applying for scholarships weeks, if not months ago),
 and we now usher in that hallowed time for the preparation, completion and submission of FAFSA, CSS-Profile (for those colleges and scholarship programs requiring same), as well as college-specific financial aid forms.

Just about every college requires the submission of FAFSA for consideration of any award, whether merit or need-based, so it is important to prepare the form accurately and completely, and to submit same in a timely manner. [FAFSA online may be completed and submitted beginning January 1st.]

Some things to remember:
1. FAFSA must be completed EVERY year, whether you are applying to college, in college, or attending grad school;
2. FAFSA should be submitted by every student regardless of income;
3. For undergrads, both student and parent should have PIN numbers. Get your PIN numbers at the PIN website [Once you have your PIN numbers, write them down and save them. You will need them to access FAFSA and to file FAFSA each year you are in school];
4. The correct -- and only -- site for FAFSA is NOT .com, .net or dot anything else;
5. Submission of FAFSA is FREE (as in, FREE Application for Federal Student Aid)!

Most colleges make their financial aid awards -- including scholarships, loans and Work-Study -- on a first-come, first-served basis, so submitting the requisite forms early is always advantageous!

In order to properly and accurately complete the form(s), and to expedite the process, you should have the following on hand:
  • Student's Social Security card and driver's license, and/or alien registration card if you are not a US citizen.
  • Student's income tax returns, W-2 forms and 1040 forms for 2010.
  • Parents' income tax returns, W-2 forms and 1040 forms for 2010 (if you are dependent).
  • Records and documentation of other untaxed income received such as welfare benefits, Social Security income, veteran's benefits, AFDC, or military or clergy allowances.
  • Current bank statements, and records of stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other investments (student and parents).
  • Current mortgage information.
  • Business or farm records (if applicable).
  • Records relating to any unusual family financial circumstances, such as unusually high child care costs, death, divorce and loss of employment. (These aren't required, but they could influence the amount of aid received.)
For a quick, and somewhat humorous overview of FAFSA, check out The Five-Minute FAFSA YouTube video.

For an overview of FAFSA versus College Board's CSS-Profile, see our blogpost, Profiles In College Money, as previously posted by The College Whisperer.

And remember, there is a difference between financial aid awards offered by the colleges you apply to and the scholarships you search and apply for through scholarship search engines, the high school guidance office, community organizations, and so on.

The finanacial aid package offered by colleges typically consists of one or more of the following: Scholarships (free money that never has to be repaid, including merit awards and need-based); Grants (ie., Pell, which also never has to be repaid); Loans, including Stafford for students and PLUS for parents (must be repaid, with interest); and Work-Study (on-campus part-time job where what you earn goes to offset tuition). To be considered for an award, you MUST submit the FAFSA!

There are scholarships awarded by colleges themselves (check the college websites, usually under Financial Aid, for available scholarships, their requirements, and how to apply). Typically, you need do nothing more than submit the FAFSA on a timely basis to be considered for such scholarships.

Then there are the scholarships you, the student, apply for outside the college, such as those found through Fastweb, and similar scholarship search engines. There generally do not require a FAFSA submission and are awarded independent of the colleges you apply to or ultimately enroll at.

So, while FAFSA isn't necessarily the whole ball of wax, so to speak, when it comes to completing and submitting, this one is a no brainer: SUBMIT THE FAFSA ONLINE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE ON OR AFTER JANUARY 1 TO ENSURE YOU ARE CONSIDERED FOR THE MAXIMUM FINANCIAL AID AWARDS OFFERED BY THE COLLEGES YOU HAVE APPLIED TO. [You will receive an award letter (or email) with or shortly after your acceptance, so there will be ample time -- before the May 1 deadline for your decision -- to consider awards, appeal, where warranted, and compare each school's package to the other.]

And let's not forget that every college has a NET COST CALCULATOR somewhere on its website, so you can calculate the true cost of college (or pretty darn close) and see what part of the cost the financial aid award (plus any outside scholarships you secure) will cover.

It all starts with FAFSA Online, January 1!
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Confused about financial aid? Stumped by FAFSA? Confounded by CSS-Profile or other proprietary financial aid forms? COLLEGE CONNECTION understands. We can help you prepare, complete and submit ALL required financial aid forms, including the FAFSA. We'll work with you in-person, by telephone, online and/or via Skype, not just to get the financial aid forms done, but to get them done correctly. DON'T MISS OUT ON MONEY FOR COLLEGE. Contact COLLEGE CONNECTION today! 516-345-8766.