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3 tips for filling out the FAFSA

Mother and daughter going over information together | Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty Images

Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty Images

The Federal Financial Aid Application may seem like a huge undertaking to complete. After all, it is multiple pages long, asks more than 100 questions and requires a slew of documentation.

But before you throw in the towel and lose out on the potential for free money, there are easy ways to get it done. From getting organized ahead of time to going digital, filling out the FAFSA doesn't have to conjure up panic attacks or undo stress.

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"It's really not as painful as it seems on the surface," says Jeff Rossi, CFP professional and founder of Peak Wealth Advisors LLC in Holmdel, New Jersey.

"Preparation is the key, and with proper planning the experience can be quick and painless," Rossi says.

Get your documents in order

According to financial aid experts, the 1st thing a family should do when getting ready to fill out the FAFSA application is have all the documentation needed to complete it at the ready. According to Mark Kantrowitz, president of MK Consulting Inc. in Las Vegas and a nationally recognized expert on student financial aid.

To complete the application, parents will need the student's driver's license, Social Security number, W-2 and/or 1099 forms, records of earnings income, records of other taxable income like unemployment benefits, federal income tax returns from the prior tax year and investment account statements.

Go digital with the application

While parents may think filling out a hard copy of the application may be the easiest way to go, actually completing the online application can speed up the process. That's because the government has gone high-tech and added "skip logic" to the application, meaning you will see only the questions that are applicable to you. That will remove a lot of the guesswork or questions about whether a portion should be filled out.

There is also an option to import tax information directly from the Internal Revenue Service. According to Rossi, what makes filling the digital application even more attractive is that there are help links and a chat function within the application to ask questions and get live support.

Double-check the information

One of the worst things that can happen is filling out the application incorrectly and getting less aid or none at all as a result. While it isn't intended to trick anyone, it can be tricky if you don't carefully read each field and provide the exact information that the government wants.

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That's why Kantrowitz says it is extremely important to double-check all the information you provide, even basic things like the student's name, Social Security number and mailing address.

What's more, he says families should be filing the FAFSA as soon as possible at the beginning of the year. "Students who file the FAFSA in January, February and March receive more than twice as much grant funding, on average, as students who file the FAFSA later," Kantrowitz says.

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