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FAFSA Explainer

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Jan. 1 is the first day high school seniors can file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and the government recommends that students file as close to the first as possible.

The FAFSA is extremely important. FAFSA opens the doors to a variety of financial aid options. You need this form if you want to receive a Pell grant or apply for student loans. Many colleges and states use a student's FAFSA information to award their own grants and scholarships. In fact, many schools require the FAFSA as part of their scholarship application.

If you're a senior and haven't yet filled out a FAFSA, don't worry. The deadline to file is July 30, 2008. But, like we said, they recommend you get it in earlier. Some states have earlier deadlines, and a college may require you to have it submitted earlier to be eligible for their financial aid programs.

If you do have application work to do, get started as soon as you can. FAFSA requires a host of forms and information including driver's license, your family's tax returns, bank statements and Social Security numbers.

Experts recommend working on FAFSA during the fall and having it ready to submit early in January. If you wait until too close to the deadline you may not be able to get all the forms needed in time.

You can fill out the FAFSA online. First, get the FAFSA on the Web form which clearly outlines everything you need to file. Don't dive in without looking at what information you need first; the form is eight pages long!

But the effort required is a small price to pay. FAFSA opens up all the financial aid available to college students. Ignoring this form could cost you thousands of dollars.

For more information, to apply, to download all FAFSA forms necessary, and for a full list of deadlines, visit www.fafsa.ed.gov.