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A key step in getting college financial aid

(MoneyWatch) If you are planning to apply for financial aid for the coming school year, mark January 1 on your calendar, listen up.

Every year on January 1 the federal government unveils what's known as Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA. You need to complete the form if you plan to seek need-based aid and/or you expect to borrow through federal college loans.

If this is the first time you will be applying for financial aid, you can get a head start by obtaining a FAFSA PIN. You will need this four-digit number to electronically sign the FAFSA and to access your financial aid records. Both you and your child will need a PIN.

Here is where you can obtain your FAFSA PIN. You can also go to this website if you possess a PIN, but have forgotten it. If you have questions about the PIN or the FAFSA, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at (800) 4-FED-AID.

While you are at it, I'd also suggest that you get a head's up on what's ahead when you tackle the FAFSA. You can do this by downloading and printing a copy of the FAFSA worksheet.

The FAFSA worksheet for the next school year isn't available yet, but you can obtain a copy of the worksheet for 2012-13, which shouldn't be much different. If you know what questions you will be asked and what documents you will need, the FAFSA can be nearly painless.

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