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The FAFSA can be a confusing document for high school students and their parents to fill out. But completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid can be the difference between affording college, and not. Fortunately, there is ample help available to students and parents to guide them through the FAFSA filing process. Some of the most important things to know are:

1. Get your PIN early. If you are filing your FAFSA electronically, the first thing students and parents each need is their own four-digit Federal Student Aid PIN. You’ll use it to sign the FAFSA once you’re done filling it out. You can apply for your PIN on the FAFSA website. You’ll also need your same PIN each year you’re in college, so keep it in a safe place.

2. Gather all important forms. The FAFSA asks for information about you and your financial situation. Dependent student must file their FAFSA with their parents, so parents will also have to provide financial information on the form. Independent students, however, do not need to provide any information on their parents. Students and parents should have their 2012 W-2 forms handy. In addition, they will need to have balance information on any bank accounts or college savings plans.

3. Fill out your FAFSA early. Student entering college in the fall can fill out the FAFSA after Jan. 1 of the year they want to enroll. File as early as possible for the best chance of getting grants and scholarships, which are limited in availability. Grants and scholarships are the best kind of aid as they do not need to be repaid after graduation. Typically, students who apply early in the process get first priority for this university funding.

4. Ask for help if you need it. Fill out the FAFSA slowly and try to be as accurate as possible. If you need help, contact the financial aid office of the college where you want to enroll and a trained financial aid person can provide assistance. You should never pay for help filling out the FAFSA. Help is available for free. Students also should explore scholarship opportunities offered through local and national organizations.