Tips from the U.S. Department of Education on applying for financial aid for college:
Applying is free. Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid at www.fafsa.ed.gov/ is the first step in the process. Students can file electronically or on a paper application. Students are also encouraged to talk to the financial aid directors at the schools they hope to attend to learn about financial aid packages and other sources of assistance.
Most states and schools make determinations about aid eligibility by information supplied on the FAFSA form, so students should start the process of finding money to pay for college with completion of the FAFSA. Students can obtain a FAFSA at high school guidance offices, libraries, or by calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center toll-free at (800) 4-FED-AID ( 433-3243; TDD  730-8913).
Electronic filing is faster and easier. An estimated eight percent of paper applications are returned for errors, adding time to the application process. By filing electronically, students can avoid delays because the software immediately identifies errors and allows for on-the-spot corrections. Students may apply electronically through the Internet at www.fafsa.ed.gov/.
Reapplying for aid is simple -- whether filing electronically or on paper -- for all filers who applied the previous year regardless of whether the student actually received aid. Students simply add a minimal amount of new information on the renewal form and update any information that has changed from the previous year. For renewal filing over the Web, students are given an electronic access code or PIN that serves as the student's signature.
PIN numbers are now available and can be requested in advance of filing the electronic FAFSA. Both parents and students can register for a PIN at www.pin.ed.gov, so that they can provide an authorization signature without submitting a separate paper signature sheet.
If using the paper FAFSA, applicants should print carefully and clearly using only blue or black ink or pencil as no other color ink is accepted.
To ensure that the most current financial information is used in calculating aid eligibility, federal tax returns for calendar year 2001 should be completed. If this is not possible, use W-2 forms and carefully estimate tax information.
Be aware of deadline dates for applications to schools. Some schools have early filing dates. A list of state deadlines is included in the FAFSA instructions.
Some schools require students to complete a separate form for institutional aid, so be sure to check with the school.