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    Five Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

    Don't let these pitfalls keep you from the aid you need.

    Cherissa Roebuck

    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 for.

    So how can you navigate the process successfully? By avoiding 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.

    Financial aid directors say procrastination is a common problem. One director told Christian College Guide: "Many families are intimidated by the financial aid process. 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 aid.

    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, say financial aid experts.

    The FAFSA should be completed as soon as possible after January 1 of your student's senior year in high school. If you want to get a head start on the financial aid process, you can fill out the FAFSA pre-application worksheet at fafsa.ed.gov/worksheet.htm. This practice form can help students and parents become familiar with the types of questions as well as the required information and financial documents your family will need to complete the official FAFSA.

    When completing the FAFSA, pay close attention to the directions so that you can avoid careless paperwork mistakes, such as forgetting to sign the back page of the FAFSA. A simple mistake can delay the financial aid process for weeks. You can save time by filling out the form online at fafsa.ed.gov.

    Mistake No. 3: Overlooking Potential Scholarships

    In the midst of filling out college applications and financial aid forms, the scholarship search often takes a backseat. There are a lot of students competing for the big scholarships, and smaller scholarships may only amount to a few hundred dollars. Why invest the time and effort when there are no guarantees, and the returns may be small?

    Here's one good reason: More than $1 billion in scholarship money is available from hundreds of community organizations, civic clubs and corporations. And somebody's going to receive that money. Why not your student?

    Another reason: The potential returns for a small investment of time are pretty amazing. Let's say you and your student spend an hour searching the Internet for scholarships. You find 10 that your student is eligible for, and they all have similar application requirements. So your student spends two hours preparing the essays and other materials for the first application, then another hour making photocopies for the remaining nine applications. If your child receives just one scholarship worth $200 for four hours of work, your effort has been compensated at $50 per hour—a pretty decent "wage"!

    You'll need the following items to complete the form (according to the checklist posted on the FAQ page on fafsa.ed.gov):