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Colleges employ a variety of financial aid forms to make decisions that lead to a distribution of available funds. In order to maximize your share of aid, it is important to submit all needed forms by stated deadlines.

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the cornerstone on which all aid determinations are based. The FAFSA is completed online as soon as possible after Jan. 1st of the applicant’s senior year of high school, and then again prior to each subsequent year of college. Although you can’t complete the paperwork yet, it is a good idea to visit the FAFSA website before Jan. 1st to obtain a PIN (needed for an electronic signature) and to learn about the documents and records you’ll need in order to complete the FAFSA. It may be advantageous to complete the FAFSA even if you don’t believe your family will qualify for need-based aid. You can check with all of your colleges to find out if they will consider applicants for merit aid if families have not submit-ted the FAFSA. Families who seek need-based aid must complete the FAFSA each year because financial circumstances may change. Many families who do not qualify for need-based aid for their first child discover that they become eligible for aid when a second or third child enters college.

Private colleges often have more money to distribute than public institutions and may also require more financial information. Check to see if any of your colleges require the CSS Profile, a form provided by the College Board. You can see the list of schools that require the Profile and also apply at www.collegeboard.org. This form is completed during the Fall of senior year and is submitted in addition to, not instead of, the FAFSA. Students applying through an early decision plan who would like an early read on their financial aid package need to complete the Profile by the college’s early dead-line. Families should understand, how-ever, that the package offered is subject to modification once final financial aid forms are completed.

Some colleges utilize their own financial aid forms. Check carefully for all forms and filing dates required by each college on your final list. Colleges may also require students to submit their college application by an earlier date if they wish to be considered for either need-based or merit scholarships.

State funding also begins with the FAFSA form and may require additional paperwork. Check your individual state requirements if you are applying to either public or private in-state institutions.