Although the holiday season can be a stressful time for many people, it is especially stressful for parents of students applying for college financial aid.  Here’s a plan to reduce that stress.

This is the time of year parents and students are bombarded by deadlines for college admission applications, scholarship applications and financial aid applications.  Knowing application deadlines will help you gather required information timely and keep your student’s financial aid applications on track.  You don’t want to miss out on grants or other need based awards because of a missed deadline.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA is available starting January 1 for the upcoming college year.  The college CCS/PROFILE application has been available on-line since October 1.  The CCS/PROFILE is often required by private colleges and universities along with the FAFSA.  Occasionally, a college may have their own institutional financial aid application, so be sure to check with each college on their specific requirements for financial aid applications and due dates.

To add to the stress, many schools have priority deadlines for filing the FAFSA and CSS/PROFILE, some as early as February 1, 2012.  This poses somewhat of a problem for parents and students when they must disclose their 2011 income information as well as the value of their assets.  Most people will not be able to file their 2011 federal income tax return by February 1, since many of the forms needed to report investment income may not be received until February 15. Estimate income now for priority filing of financial aid applications and update income later after tax returns are filed. You can do this by collecting pay stubs and estimating year end income, as well as cataloging investment account statements that can be updated later with the latest performance information.

More than likely, you will be filing the FAFSA on-line at www.fafsa.ed.gov . You will need to obtain a PIN number which acts as your electronic signature.  You can request a PIN now at www.pin.ed.gov.  The CSS/PROFILE can only be filed on-line at www.collegeboard.org.  You will also need to set up an account with a user name and password.  This should have been done as part of any standardized testing registration.

Parents and students should visit these websites before the end of the year and print out the instructions for the forms to familiarize themselves with the questions and needed financial information.  Warning! – pay special attention to the detailed instructions.  Includable assets for the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) calculations are not the same for the FAFSA and the CSS/PROFILE.  Take some time now to understand the differences.  Incorrectly reporting your income or assets can slow down the process and can have a negative impact on the potential award your student may receive.  Both websites have pre-application worksheets that you should also print out now to help you assemble and organize your financial information.  Also check-out http://fafsademo.test.ed.gov to view a demonstration of the FAFSA form.

November is also a good time to get an estimate of your Expected Family Contribution.  The collegeboard.orgwebsite as well as many college websites offer calculators which can estimate your EFC using both the federal methodology (FAFSA) and the institutional methodology (CSS/PROFILE).  These estimates should be calculated now to allow time for planning decisions before the end of the year.

While these processes may seem overwhelming, much can be gained by taking a few steps now to get organized and become familiar with the applications and instructions.  You can reduce your stress and reduce the time needed to prepare accurate financial aid applications once the New Year arrives.