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    Cash in on Financial Aid

    Improve your chances for aid by avoiding five common mistakes.

    Cherissa Dees

    You've browsed through brochures, talked to admissions counselors and surfed through college websites. Finally, your student has decided on his or her dream college. And while your college student-to-be is mulling over possible majors, the one question looming in your mind is: "How are we going to pay for it?"

    Most families rely on some form of financial aid to help fund their child's college education. Applying for and receiving financial aid is a process that requires a little patience, a lot of paperwork and a substantial investment of time. If you go through the process successfully, you could end up with more financial aid than you ever thought your student would be eligible to receive.

    So how can you navigate the process successfully? Experts suggest that parents and students avoid five common mistakes:

    Mistake No. 1: Starting the Process Too Late

    It takes several months to complete the process of applying for financial aid. If you're addressing your student's high school graduation announcements and still haven't started the college financial aid process, you've waited too long!

    "Many families are intimidated by the financial aid process," says Larry Hollingsworth, director of student

    financial services at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. "That intimidation causes them to put it off, and then when reality sets in, they've missed the opportunities for financial aid that they might have received if they had started earlier."

    Most financial aid professionals recommend that families begin the financial aid process no later than the fall of their student's senior year. Once your student has decided on possible colleges and universities, contact the financial aid departments at those schools to find out what paperwork needs to be completed to apply for institutional aid (grants and scholarships funded by the school) and federal aid (grants, scholarships and loans funded by the federal government).

    And it's never too early to start hunting for scholarships. During your student's junior year in high school, start looking for independent scholarships at the community, regional and national level. Check out scholarship search sites like, and ask your child's high school counselor for potential scholarship sources.

    Many families just don't spend enough time looking for potential sources of financial aid, Hollingsworth says.

    "Financial aid is not going to just fall in your lap," he says. "It takes work, and parents and students need to invest time into investigating possible scholarship and grant sources."

    According to the experts, getting an early start can mean the difference of thousands of dollars in financial aid—a great return on your investment of time.

    Mistake No. 2: Forgetting the FAFSA

    Another common mistake families make is not completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form makes qualified families eligible for federal financial aid, and many universities also use the information from the FAFSA to determine which students will receive institutional aid.

    Some families assume they won't qualify for aid and don't apply at all. Others fill out parts of the FAFSA, but don't ask to be considered for all types of aid. These families are limiting their financial aid options by not seeking out every possible aid source, says Vicki Rekow, director of student financial services at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington.

    "The FAFSA is critical in the financial aid process," says Rekow. "It's really important for students to submit it, and to do so on time. There's always a limited amount of institutional aid available, and, for the most part, it is going to be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis."

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    You'll need the following items to complete the form (according to the checklist posted on the FAQ page on
    Your guidance counselor can point you in the right direction.