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Paying for College

11 Student-Aid Traps to Avoid

You'll ace the FAFSA and maximize your free money if you watch for these pitfalls.

If your kid is heading to college in the fall, you'll likely need to scrape together every penny you can get to cover the college bills. That means filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA. The FAFSA gives your student a shot at state, federal and institutional grants as well as access to the Stafford, a federal student loan.

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But filling out the form is, well, a pain in the FAFSA, and if you make a mistake, you could hurt your chances of getting free money. Although most applicants manage the process just fine, you'll do well to read the fine print, pay attention to electronic prompts and watch out for these pitfalls.

1. Waiting till your tax return is done. If you don't have all your tax information when you tackle the FAFSA, use ballpark numbers and update them later. “At many schools, aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis,” says Jennifer Douglas, of the federal Student Aid Awareness and Applicant Services. “The most common mistake is waiting too late to apply.”

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2. Failing to list all household members. You can include any dependent children for whom you provide at least half the support, regardless of whether they live with you or how many tax exemptions you take. If you expect the stork to arrive within the next nine months, count the new baby, too. Even nonrelatives may qualify. "It's got to be people who live with and get more than half their support from the family," says Mark Kantrowitz, of FinAid.org.

3. Volunteering the wrong parent. If you're divorced, the parent with whom your child lived the most during the previous year files the FAFSA, regardless of who has legal custody. If your child splits the time evenly between the two households, go with the parent who contributed the most support during the previous year.

4. Confusing the meaning of "you." "You" always means the student, even if you, the parent, fill out the form.

5. Misidentifying names and numbers. Use names as they appear on the Social Security card, not nicknames, and be careful not to list your own Social Security number in the section that applies to the student, or vice versa.

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6. Giving the stepparent a pass. If you're the parent filing the FAFSA, your current spouse's finances go on the form, not those of the child's other biological parent. Neither a prenup nor a divorce decree gets the stepparent off the hook.

7. Citing your adjusted gross income in the line for total income tax. This mistake, once common, happens less often thanks to a prompt on the electronic application that questions out-of-whack answers.

8. Reporting the tax you had withheld, not the amount you owe. Unless you used a crystal ball and a magic calculator to figure your withholding, the two numbers will differ at least a little.

9. Overstating your wealth. You're required to list assets as of the date you sign the FAFSA, not the end of the tax year. If you have a big expense coming up, pay it before you file; if you're expecting a windfall, file the FAFSA before the money arrives. Don't include the value of the family home, retirement plans, a farm that your family lives on and operates, or a family business with 100 or fewer employees. (The FAFSA instructions provide full details.)

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10. Neglecting to hit the "submit" button. It happens. Don't let your work go to waste.

11. Forgetting to update the numbers. If you filed the FAFSA before your tax return, you'll need to update the information to match your tax form. The Federal Student Aid Administration sends a reminder to do so after April 15, but most of the free money will be gone by then. Fix the FAFSA as soon as you finish your taxes.