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Maximizing chances for merit-based aid

WASHNGTON—Students and parents consistently overestimate the price of college and underestimate the availability of financial aid, financial aid expert Donald Heller said.

To get a truer picture and maximize your chances for merit-based aid:

_Apply for federal need-based financial aid even if you think you won't get any. Go to www.fafsa.ed.gov ("Free Application for Federal Student Aid") to do so.

_At schools where you've been accepted, contact your major department to see whether it offers any financial aid based on merit. Do the same with the school's choir director, newspaper adviser or any other extracurricular interest.

_Write the financial aid office to ask whether it has a list of scholarships for which you might be eligible.

_Get to know FastWeb (www.fastweb.com), the most popular Internet site for scholarships, including merit-based aid. You can plug in your personal profile and shake out way more aid possibilities than you'll ever apply for. Skip the $500 and $1,000 prizes for which everyone is eligible and winners are few. If your grades are great, apply for academic scholarships. If you're a strong writer, focus on aid that requires essays.

_There's another smart way to use FastWeb. Click on "Educators" to find out what your counselor is learning. Then click on "Articles, Tools and More," then on "Scholarships." Knowledgeable aid applicants get the most help.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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