For undergraduates in college, their parents probably tackle the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It is the form required of all students applying for federally sponsored loans and grants.
But for graduate students, the task is all their own.
The application for the 2007-08 academic year became available this month, and students can apply for aid until June 30, 2008.
But some colleges require a FAFSA be submitted by early spring in order to be considered for a school's in-house pool of grants and loans. States that dole out rewards may have deadlines as early as March 1.
Plus, by doing the FAFSA now, "you'll have that much more time to consider your options on how to pay for school," said Kevin Walker, chief executive of SimpleTuition, which helps students compare private loans between lenders.
And this year graduate students will be eligible for even more federal aid. The cap on Stafford loans, the most common federal loan, originated on July 1 or later will rise to $20,500 per academic year from $18,500. If that amount doesn't cover the bill, students can take out a Graduate PLUS loan, once available only to parents.
You can borrow up to the full cost of your education, minus other aid received, as long as you're not 90 days late on any other debt obligation and you haven't discharged a student loan through bankruptcy in the last five years.So how do you complete the FAFSA?
"It looks complicated, but it's really not," Walker said.
-- Log on
Log on to www.fafsa.ed.gov to fill out an application online. The Web site provides detailed instructions to help you through the process, including the paperwork you should gather to complete the form, as well as federal and state deadlines.
The U.S. Department of Education, which administers the FAFSA, said it generally takes less than an hour to complete an application online. And applications received electronically are processed as much as two weeks quicker than paper versions sent by mail.
-- Gather tax data
To fill out the FAFSA, you'll need information about your 2006 personal income tax obligation. So it's easier to complete the form if you've already done your tax return.
If you're coming up on a school or state deadline, you can make do with your 2006 Form W-2 or Form 1099, which you receive this time of year from employers (the W-2) or jobs where you worked as a freelancer or contractor (the 1099).
Still, even though there's a month to go before most financial aid deadlines, don't delay. File your tax return now so that you can fill out the FAFSA with accurate numbers. Otherwise, you'll be stuck providing estimates of your tax information and may have to make adjustments later.
Some tax questions on the FAFSA may be tricky. With a completed tax return, you can cite specific line items, helping eliminate mix-ups.
"Everyone seems to get confused about the tax liability you have to report," said Mark Kantrowitz, founder of FinAid.org, an online resource for student financial aid information.
Even with all your paperwork in order, prospective students who worked full time in 2006 may want to write to the financial aid office and ask for a professional judgment review. That's because the FAFSA takes into account your income from the previous year, which could disqualify you for the maximum amount of aid, even though you won't earn a dime while you study.
In general, you should always contact your school if you have concerns about paying the bills. Start with your program head.
"With undergrads, everything tends to be centralized in the financial aid office," Kantrowitz said. "For grads, it's often by department."
E-mail Carolyn Bigda at email@example.com.