Q: Our son is headed to college. While he got into his match school, we haven't heard from his first choice school yet, which is also the most expensive. We need a financial aid package. Should we wait until we hear from them all to apply for aid?
A: Don't wait until he's accepted to apply for aid. At a minimum, you'll need to file a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form from the U.S. Department of Education (fafsa.ed.gov). The FAFSA form for the 2013-14 school year went online Jan. 1.
"The FAFSA is used to apply for federal student financial aid, such as the Pell Grant, student loans and college work-study jobs," says Kalman Chany, a financial adviser who has helped families obtain college financial aid for nearly 30 years. "Most schools and state agencies use FAFSA information to award aid. Some schools and states require additional forms.
"Be sure to file all required documents by their respective priority deadlines (set by the school or state agency) to ensure maximum consideration for funds."
Chany, author of "Paying for College Without Going Broke" (The Princeton Review Inc., 2013 edition), offers more tips:
-- Assume your child is eligible for aid. Don't rule out a college because you think it's too expensive. The higher the cost, the more aid you may receive.
-- Research the forms you'll need and due dates. "The process can be overwhelming," notes Chany. "Many colleges have different deadlines for different aid forms. Chart each school's and your state's aid application requirements so you don't miss any deadlines. While most are due in February and March, some are due in January.
"Check to see if any of the schools require the College Board's 2013-14 CSS PROFILE or other forms besides the FAFSA."
-- Figure out your "expected family contribution." Before you apply for aid, use the worksheets in financial aid guidebooks to calculate what the college will estimate you can afford to pay.
"Make sure you have the most up-to-date information, as rules and formulas change every year," Chany cautions.
-- Maximize your child's eligibility. Consider making appropriate adjustments to your assets, debts and retirement provisions before you submit the FAFSA.
For those with high school juniors and younger: Freshman year need-based aid awards for college are set in part on income for the tax year ending Dec. 31 of the student's senior year of high school.
-- Do your 2012 tax forms early. To meet early aid application deadlines, you may need to estimate your 2012 tax return data.
-- Practice and proofread! "Many parents make costly mistakes in aid applications and fail to get the aid they're eligible to receive because they don't understand how their responses impact aid eligibility," says Chany. "The forms are complex and take time. Do a practice run on paper before you submit anything online. Double-check everything. Do you have forms for the correct academic year you are seeking aid? Have you answered all the required questions? Did you sign and date them? Keep copies!"
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)