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Winning the financial aid game

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Families have a better chance of winning the financial aid game by going on the offensive early. While the folks at the U.S. Department of Education feverishly prepare for kickoff on January 1st, take to the practice field and work on getting in shape starting today.

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Simply follow these nine easy plays from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) playbook and position your team to maximize scholarship potential by learning the drill before game day:

1. Visit the FAFSA website (http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/). Accept NO substitutes. And note—this is the FREE application for federal student aid. It’s not meant to be a pay to play game. Anyone charging for the privilege of providing you with a FAFSA form or a top-secret internet link is working a scam. Don’t fall for it. Everything you need to apply for federal aid is available on the FAFSA website. And the site is really pretty user-friendly.

2. Apply for your PIN(s). Do it NOW—today even. There’s really no reason not to. Students and parents both need FAFSA Personal Identification Numbers, as they are your official signatures for electronic submissions. They are free and very easy to obtain. Again, if anyone wants to charge you for a FAFSA PIN, walk away. This is a service brought to you by your federal government.

3. Check out the videos. The Feds know how much you're into YouTube, so they’ve put together a series of very useful videos designed to introduce you to the FAFSA. “Myths about Financial Aid” debunks legends you may have heard about who actually qualifies for aid, while “Overview of the Financial Aid Process” will introduce you to the Office of Federal Student Aid.

4. Download ‘Federal Student Aid at a Glance.’ This user-friendly guide provides a quick and easy introduction to the types of federal student aid, the application process, and eligibility requirements. It’s your basic FAFSA rule book (the 2014-15 edition is due out in January).

5. Listen to the FAFSA Essentials Webinar. Thanks to our friends at NACAC, you can walk through the FAFSA application process by listening to a recording of a webinar that took place earlier this month. You’ll also get as a heads up on changes to the 2014-15 FAFSA and a few insider tips on how the FAFSA link with the IRS works.

6. Note deadlines. You should complete the FAFSA as early in the New Year as humanly possible. Don’t use IRS or tax deadlines as your guide because states and individual colleges have way earlier financial aid due dates. Georgetown University, for example, posts February 1st as its deadline for FAFSA submission. If you know you won’t be filing your taxes early, you may estimate by using previous-year tax information to complete the form. Consider filing a first draft as a placeholder and then plan to go back and amend later.

7. Download the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet. Practice makes perfect, so why not give it a try? Thoughtful government officials even give you the choice of printing the form in color or black and white. All kidding aside, the worksheet will give you a heads up on the questions asked—in the order they are asked—as well as on the kinds of documents you will need to have handy to complete the real deal in January.

8. Test Drive FAFSA4caster. While not exactly a crystal ball, this handy site will help you get an early estimate of your eligibility for federal student aid. You can test out different college options and compare the costs and benefits of each. If you haven’t really thought about the money yet, this is your opportunity for a reality check.

9. Bring in the Experts. You don’t have to go it alone. Over the next several months, a number of organizations will be scheduling FREE FAFSA workshops, so mark your calendar now. Be prepared to round-up required documents as FAFSA experts will be on hand at each of these sessions to answer questions and help you complete forms.

If you have questions concerning FAFSA, the process, or the website, don’t hesitate to contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). You can also contact the center by email at fsa.customer.support@ed.gov.

In preparation for opening day, the FAFSA on the Web site will be unavailable Sunday, December 29 from 5 a.m. through 6:30 p.m. ET and Tuesday, December 31 from 10 p.m. through 1:30 a.m. ED on Wednesday, January 1.

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