During the next few weeks, prospective college students will be hovering over their computers, thumbing through federal tax forms and logging on to the web site for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The form is the key to unlocking millions of dollars in loans, scholarships, grants and other tuition-assistance dollars.

What families will find new this year is a completely redesigned website at www.fafsa.ed.gov.

The FAFSA fixes are part of a process started by the U.S. Department of Education two years ago to address complaints that the online financial aid application had become too complicated and time-consuming. Last year, the government eliminated some questions, added more help boxes online and made it easier to transfer federal income tax information by clicking on a link.

For the 2011-12 academic year, which applies to current high school seniors, the loan application web site has been further redesigned and simplified -- starting with the FAFSA home page.

Previously, filers had to review from a rather clunky menu of choices on whether they wanted to begin, continue or make changes to their application.

But now, after logging on, you are taken directly to the beginning or wherever you left off in the application process. It's also easier to make corrections on the FAFSA form and filers can skip over questions that do not apply to their situation, according to Fastweb, a website that provides an array of resources and other tools to help students find scholarships.

While most families fill out the online version of the FAFSA, there is still a free paper version. However, as Fastweb notes, fewer paper applications are being distributed to high schools, libraries and other student centers this year. If you need a paper form, call 1-800-433-3243.

The deadline for completing the FAFSA for the 2011-12 school year isn't until June 30, 2012, but most schools have their own priority deadlines over the next two months.

Two important filing tips:

Don't wait

Much aid based on a family's financial need is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so it's best to submit the FAFSA as soon as possible. Don't wait for 2010 federal tax returns to be completed -- use estimated numbers on the FAFSA, then update after filing with the Internal Revenue Service.

Cover your bases

Many families underestimate their child's eligibility for need-based aid and overestimate their eligibility for merit money awarded for top grades and other accomplishments, said Fastweb publisher Mark Kantrowitz. His recommendation: File a FAFSA form even if you think you won't qualify for financial aid.

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Personal Finance - New Website Streamlines College-Aid Application

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