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How to Apply for Federal Financial Aid

Are you planning to attend college during the next academic year? Do you plan to apply for federal student loan or grant programs to help fund your school expenses? If so, you need to make plans to apply for financial aid as early as possible during the calendar year that you plan to start school.

The first step in applying for college money is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Even if you don't know where you plan to go to school, you should fill out your FAFSA online as soon as possible. In order to complete the document, you'll need your taxes or W-2 and 1099 income forms from the prior year, as well as those of your parents if you will be an undergraduate student under the age of 24.

Completing the FAFSA form is the key to learning which federal financial aid programs you are eligible to participate in, as well as the maximum dollar amount of funds you can receive to help offset your educational expenses. Until you complete the FAFSA, there is absolutely no way of knowing how much federal student aid you might be eligible to receive.

The details you provide when you fill out the FAFSA will be used to determine your estimated family contribution (EFC). When it comes to federal financial aid programs, the EFC is the magic number that determines how much money is available to you and under which programs. Individuals with the lowest EFCs may qualify for Pell Grants and the most favorable student loan programs. Those with higher EFCs are still likely to qualify for federal financial aid, but will probably be eligible to participate in fewer programs.

When you fill out your FAFSA, you can specify that the report be sent to one or more schools of your choice. When each school receives documentation of your eligibility for federal aid from the Department of Education, a financial aid representative will create an award letter detailing your exact eligibility and unmet obligations, if any, at his or her institution. This information can help you decide which schools you can afford to attend.

The sooner you apply for financial aid, the better. Keep in mind that some need-based programs are awarded to students on a first-come, first-served basis. Even if you have a low EFC, you may find that portions of grant programs that you qualify for have already been allocated if you procrastinate completing your financial aid application. Don't risk missing out on access to the money you need to pay for school. Fill out your FAFSA the moment you have the paperwork needed to complete the process.

Next: All About Student Loans

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