Lynn O'Shaughnessy

If you're the parents of a student who has just one more year to go in high school, you might be telling yourself the worst is over.

Kids who are now seniors have slogged through three years of grueling curriculum and can boast that they have survived the much-feared SAT. In their spare time, many of these teenagers have probably racked up enough volunteer hours to impress a saint. Just about all that's left for these kids is filling out the college applications, which schools will accept as early as this fall, and then waiting for fat acceptance letters.

But wait. There is the little matter of paying the bills, which unfortunately is often pushed aside until the acceptance verdicts are in.

While many students do a great job of positioning themselves to get into the best schools possible, their families often flunk a task that is critically important: Maximizing the chances for financial aid.

Mastering the college financial aid process can be far more challenging than impressing admission officers.

In one survey, 99 percent of college financial aid officers said that families don't understand how the system works. But figuring this out could determine where you can afford to send your child.

"Depending on how you answer questions on the forms - either yes or no - may affect your aid by thousands of dollars," said Kalman A. Chany, the author of "Paying for College Without Going Broke, 2006 Edition" and president of Campus Consultants in New York.

If you've got a teenager at home, the sooner you learn about how financial aid is doled out, the better your chances of grabbing free money. Here are some tips to get you started:

- Pay attention to the financial aid clock. While there are lots of ways to boost a financial aid package, you need to start planning sooner than you may think. That's because a college is going to examine your financial picture in the calendar year before your child starts college. For a child starting college in the fall of 2007, the relevant year would be 2006. If a student enters college two years from now, the critical year would be the 2007 calendar year.

What you want to do is reduce the appearance of income and assets in the first critical calendar year. During this 12-month period, you should avoid, if possible, selling mutual funds, stocks, bonds and other investments that could generate capital gains that can hurt in the aid calculations.

If you have a car loan or you carry a balance on your credit card, consider paying it down. By eliminating debt, you'll reduce the amount of cash in accounts that you have to report on your financial aid forms. If you're anticipating a year-end bonus, see if you can arrange it before the start of your base year.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of Retirement Bible.

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