12/16/2013 10:19 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

Add Applying for Financial Aid to Your Holiday To-Do List

While you are making your holiday list and checking it twice, don't forget to add a reminder to apply for financial aid. What better gift than knowing you'll have enough money to send your child to college? Here are a few tips to help you through the process:

1. Don't Procrastinate

Whether you are a new or returning college student, you must apply for federal financial aid each year, and do so as soon as possible. You can complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online at Federal Student Aid starting January 1st for the 2014-15 academic year. For returning students, you can opt to have your application prefilled with the basic information you supplied last year, however you will need your PIN number to begin the process. (Forgot your PIN? Go to and click the option for '"Request a Duplicate PIN.")

An early federal tax filing allows for ease and accuracy in the financial aid process today. So, you also might want to add that to you holiday to-do list! However, don't wait until your family has filed their federal tax returns to apply.

"Students and their families should never miss a deadline because they haven't filled out their taxes. Applying for financial aid as soon as possible will get institutions the information they need to make financial aid offers, and ensure students are taking full advantage of both need and merit-based aid at the institutions they are interested in attending," recommends Julie Savino, Executive Director of University Financial Assistance at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. "With the increased number of students seeking financial assistance, families need to get their forms in early, not just the FAFSA, but other financial aid forms as well. Deadlines may vary and processes can be a little different from institution to institution," she added.

You can use estimated figures to avoid delays and correct this information once your taxes have been filed. The FAFSA now has an IRS Data Retrieval tool that allows you to have your tax information imported directly from the IRS. It's the best way to ensure your numbers are accurate. Some parents and students have found this process to be a little confusing, so the University of California -Santa Barbara developed a great online tutorial that may help.

The information collected through the FASFA form is used to figure out how much a student's family is expected to contribute to their child's education. It calculates an EFC, or Expected Family Contribution, which determines whether or not you are eligible for federal student aid, particularly the federal Pell grant -- a need-based grant that unlike student loans, does not have to be repaid.

2. Look to the College or Your State for More Aid

You may be a surprised when you see how much your expected family contribution is after filing out the FAFSA, but don't be discouraged. You may be eligible for other sources of financial aid, including state and institutional aid. Be sure to check with your state's and/or school's financial aid website or office for a schedule of application deadlines and required forms.

Some colleges and universities, particularly private institutions, ask for supplemental information and may require you to complete the College Board's CSS/Financial Aid Profile. While having your taxes filed before completing this profile is recommended, some colleges or programs may have an early priority filing date that may make this impossible. In that case, provide your best estimates, which you can update later.

For returning college students, please note that if your family's financial circumstances change, you may get more or less aid than you received last year. Your eligibility may be affected by other factors such as having a change in the number of family members in college, in-state residency or parental marital status. Renewal of your financial aid package is also dependent on the student making satisfactory academic progress toward a degree, such as earning a minimum number of course credits and achieving a minimum GPA. Again, be sure to check your institution's policy in this regard.

3. Check It Twice

It's very important to update your FAFSA after you have filed your tax return. If you don't, your application may be selected for verification, which is a bit like an audit of financial aid materials. The verification process may require supplying supporting documentation and, more importantly, may delay the processing of your application by your college. Many students may be denied aid or may not receive all that they are entitled to because of incomplete or inaccurate information on their application.

"Filing early and accurately is the key to successfully navigating the Financial Aid world," said Bernie Ogden, Director of Financial Aid at California State University, Fresno, "We see too many students that lose out because their files are missing information, which delays the processing of their award."

Need assistance with filling out the FAFSA? Visit College Goal Sunday or California's Cash for College to find out about free workshops specifically designed to help with FAFSA forms, which usually take place in January and early February.

4. Not sure you qualify? Apply anyway

Never applied for financial aid before or don't think you qualify? Apply anyway. Some families mistakenly think they don't quality for aid and miss out on grant and loan opportunities. There are a few sources of loan aid such as the unsubsidized Direct and PLUS loans that are available regardless of need, but you must file a FAFSA to qualify. It's a good idea to apply for aid again if you applied for aid your first year and didn't qualify -- things change from year to year. It's especially a good idea to reapply if your family situation has changed. It's free to apply, so it's definitely worth a try.

Give you and your family a little new year's "peace of mind' by getting your financial aid applications in early. After all, a college education is a gift that keeps on giving.

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