How can I apply for need-based financial aid?

@Money

Ready to get started? Here are the forms you need to fill out -- and the calls you need to make -- to apply for need-based grants and other aid.

Step 1. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Accepted by almost every accredited college, the FAFSA is the single most important financial aid application you'll need to fill out. It will be used to determine whether you are eligible for both federal need-based grants, such as Pell Grants, as well as many states' grants. In addition, the FAFSA also qualifies you for federal college loans and many charities and colleges also base their scholarship decisions on it.

Since some colleges dole out aid on a first-come, first-served basis, you should complete your FAFSA form as soon after January 1 as possible. But don't panic if you're late. You can apply for retroactive aid as late as nine months after the fact.

Each academic year's FAFSA is available for 18 months. If you get this form from the government and fill it out yourself, it's free. If you choose to get help from a consultant or a private business (such as fafsa.com), expect to pay a fee -- much the same way you'd pay an accountant to fill out a free tax form.

When using the online form, the student, and a parent if the student is under 24, have to apply online for FAFSA personal identification numbers. After you have a FAFSA identification number, you then provide information about the student's savings and previous years' earnings. Most students under the age of 24 must also provide information about their parents' savings and earnings.

It helps -- but is not necessary - to have completed your tax form before you start your FAFSA.

Step 2. Fill out the College Board's financial aid profile.

Check if your college or scholarship application requires the College Board's CSS/Financial Aid Profile. About 300 colleges, mostly private schools, require this additional and more in-depth financial aid application as well. Here's a list of the schools that require this additional form.

The College Board charges $9 for the application, and another $16 to send it to each college you designate.

Step 3. Make some calls.

Call your college's financial aid office and ask about additional opportunities for need-based aid.

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