Get a Head Start on the FAFSA

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It's an annual chore college students and their parents dread: completing the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It can be a time-consuming and annoying task but it's a necessary evil if you want Uncle Sam to help you pay for college.

FAFSA submissions for the 2010-2011 school year began this month, so here are a few things you can do now to get your application ready.

Get your PIN

The student and parent each need their own PIN to submit the FAFSA electronically and it takes a few days for PINs to be processed. Get your PIN here.

Gather paperwork

This is usually the most time-consuming part. You'll need info on income and assets of the student and their parents (for a dependent student) or spouse.

Sandra Proulx, community manager of EducationGrant.com, says you'll need tax forms, documentation of untaxed income like child support or government benefits, business and mortgage records and bank statements. Until you complete your tax return, you can simply use your final pay stub to determine your yearly income.

Estimate your EFC

The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is used by the government and schools to determine your financial need. By estimating it now, you'll have a rough idea of what aid you might get. Fred Carter, director of financial aid at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala., suggests using FAFSA4Caster, a government site. "Some of the data entered there will populate a portion of the 2010-2011 FAFSA when they officially apply, which will save time at that point," Carter says.

Is the FAFSA all you need? "Some schools also require the CSS Profile or their own institutional aid application," points out Helen Nunn, director of financial aid at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.

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