If you're turning your attention this month to filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, you'll notice your information can be sent to up to 10 colleges at a time.
But what you may not realize is that the order in which you list the schools could influence the amount of financial aid you receive or in some cases, even admission.
That's one of the valuable takeaways from a new book by Mark Kantrowitz and David Levy, financial aid experts with Edvisors.com, which operates a group of websites devoted to planning and paying for college.
Their book, Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, provides a detailed reference for parents and students seeking financial assistance to pay for college.
For most families, that process starts with the FAFSA, although some mostly private colleges and universities also require additional financial-aid paperwork.
If anybody fits the definition of financial aid experts, it's the authors. Kantrowitz, the senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com, has written several books on student loans and scholarships and has frequently testified before Congress. Levy directed college financial aid programs for 30 years before becoming Edvisors' associate editor.
Their new book offers especially useful tips on how to avoid FAFSA minefields and increase your financial aid eligibility.
Take the task of listing colleges to receive your financial information. Why is the order such a big deal?
Many schools — outside of the most highly selective — pay attention to how schools are ordered and use the information as a form of "competitive intelligence," the authors said. In some instances, a school at the top of the list might offer a smaller aid package because they think the student will attend regardless of the bottom-line cost, the author said.
To counter, Kantrowitz and Levy suggest students list their second-choice school first, and their top choice second or third. The first three positions matter the most. A caveat: The order in which schools are listed does not affect federal aid, but it can influence state aid and funding from the institution itself, the authors said.
In another scenario, if a second-choice school sees several more selective institutions listed on the FAFSA, the school might reject the applicant altogether in order to increase the percentage of students who accept its admissions offer. That measurement can help a school improve its ranking in the widely followed lists of top colleges.
"So this leads to strange circumstances where a student is admitted to an Ivy League institution and rejected by less selective institutions," the authors wrote.
Confused by all the gamesmanship? The point is to be aware that it goes on.
Some of the authors' other FAFSA suggestions:
■ Don't wait until your student has been accepted at a school or federal tax returns for this year have been filed to submit the FAFSA. Some schools have deadlines for state funds as early as Feb. 1. Other schools award aid on a first-come, first-served basis. Once you're organized, it takes about one hour to complete the online version of the FAFSA. There's also a paper version.
■ Don't assume your income is too high to qualify for aid. The FAFSA determines eligibility for unsubsidized federal Stafford and PLUS loans, which are available regardless of financial need. "Even wealthy students and parents can get these low-cost loans," the authors wrote.
■ Double-check your data. For example, transposing two digits in your student's Social Security number is one of the most common mistakes.