The beginning of the year marks an especially important day for college-bound students in the USA as January 1 is also the first day that they can complete and file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the coming academic year.

For 2011-12, the FAFSA form has been reportedly made simpler with fewer questions and a simplified online process for filing. However, there are some new questions such as one asking for the name of the high school attended by the applicant, which might help the school identify and assist students who have not filed the form.

The online process contains help features, built-in edits and instructions to make it easier for the applicant or his parent to complete the process himself. Historically, there have been several scams associated with third-party assistance providers. Genuine paid professional services also do exist, but the newest form and procedure have been designed to make it simpler and more feasible than ever for the student.

An important point to note is that the online application must be signed electronically by both the student and the parent using their Federal Student Aid Personal Identification Numbers (PIN). The PIN may be obtained either while filling the Form online, or from the Federal Student Aid PIN website before starting the FAFSA procedure.

While 2010 tax information will be needed eventually, this can be confirmed later. Students are generally advised to fill out the forms with estimated figures for tax related fields and file the application as soon as possible. Timing becomes crucial as some of the aid is reportedly doled out on a first-come, first-serve basis.  Colleges and States, too, have their own individual deadlines for the student to file the application, some as early as in the first weeks of February.

Starting this year, students who want to apply for non need-based loans such as PLUS loans or unsubsidized Stafford loans must also fill out the FAFSA. In fact, it is recommended that students file the FAFSA irrespective of their financial situation since there are many colleges that require the student to complete the application in order to be considered for institutional aid, as pointed out by the Iowa College Student Aid Commission.