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File for student aid correctly

It's that time of year again, when students and parents everywhere are filling out the dreaded FAFSA form -- the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

It's the first and most important step in applying for any kind of financial assistance for college students, so getting it right is crucial. But applicants make the same mistakes on FAFSA forms year after year, according to college consultant Manuel Fabriquer of the California-based College Planning ABC.

That doesn't mean you have to make them, too. Have a look at what Fabriquer says are the 10 most common FAFSA mistakes and save yourself some time, frustration, and most importantly, money.

*Using the wrong name. Be sure the name used to apply for the student's FAFSA PIN exactly matches whatever is on file at the Social Security office. A misplaced hyphen can cause delays, and while they're working to fix it, the pot of aid will get smaller and smaller. Students who file early have the best shot at the most aid.

*Waiting for the tax man. You don't have to wait until your taxes are filed to fill out your form. Instead, check the "Will File" option and estimate your income using the previous year's tax stubs. Again, the early bird gets the fattest financial aid worm.

*Entering the wrong adjusted gross income. Your adjusted gross income, line 37 on your tax return, should have losses or gains from interest, dividends and business added or subtracted.

*Selective Service. Any male student who is 18 years old (or will turn 18 by the application deadline) must register for "selective service" by marking the appropriate box for that question on the FAFSA form. If he doesn't, he won't get federal funds, even if he's entitled to them. Even though the military no longer uses the draft system, qualifying males still have to register for it by law.

*Including the parents' home equity in net worth investments. This goes on the CSS (College Scholarship Service) profile, a more detailed form from private colleges, not the FAFSA.

*Declaring your cash on hand without first paying out your monthly bills (and any others you can afford). Remember, your goal is to show as few assets as legally and ethically possible. When asked to enter the amount of cash you have in savings and checking accounts, show the amount left after your debts are paid.

*Overstating business assets. If you have fewer than 100 employees, declare zero as the amount of your business assets.

*Including both divorced parents' income. Who does the student live with for most of the year? That parent is the only one whose income counts on the FAFSA.

*Including parents' retirement accounts. IRAs, 401(k)s and 403(b)s don't figure into a parent's net worth of assets.

*Having the student fill out the FAFSA. If the parents produced Doogie Howser, by all means, let him be the one responsible for accurately declaring all the family's personal financial information on record. If not, Fabriquer suggests a parent or a competent professional take over.

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