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If You're Looking For College Financial Aid, Start Right Now

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Parents of college-aged children know Jan. 1 isn't just the first date of the new year -- as the "shotgun start" to the college financial aid process, it's much more important than that.

That's the day the all-important Free Application for Federal Student Aid form can be sent out.

In many ways, the hunt for college financial aid money is as competitive as the search for a good school. College financial aid is limited, and if you're too late to the table there's a good chance you'll miss out for your college-aged son or daughter.

That's a big miss for parents, given the average tuition for a four-year private school is about $30,000 annually and a four-year state school (for an in-state student) is almost $10,000 per year.

"The cost associated with going to college is not decreasing, so it continues to be critical for students and their families to be savvy consumers when it comes to planning for college costs," said Christine Brown, executive director of college programs at Kaplan Test Prep . "Students and parents need to be strategic and proactive in order to improve their chances of securing strong financial aid packages and scholarships."

The company urges families to do the following to score more financial aid cash:

Apply early. Kaplan says getting to the table early is just one of several steps college families have to take to maximize the amount of college financial aid money they'll earn. But it might be the most important one.

The system truly does operate on a "first-come, first-serve" basis, so get going and file your FAFSA form as soon as you can in January. As the company points out, the form takes only about 90 minutes to complete and can add thousands to your college fund.

Make scholarship-hunting a "part-time job." Kaplan says time is money on the college financing front, and the more time you put in the more money you can earn. That's true even if your son or daughter isn't a 4.0 student. "There are thousands of 'niche' scholarships available for those who aren't necessarily at the head of the class," Kaplan says. "If you invest the same amount of time and effort into finding scholarship money that you did in putting together your college application, you might be pleasantly surprised at the scholarship options available to you."

Kaplan advises starting your scholarship at your high school's guidance office, and visit to websites that help parents find scholarship money ( Cappex.com is a good place to start.

Don't hesitate to negotiate. Don't assume a college's first financial aid offer is its only offer. True, FAFSA offers are non-negotiable, but colleges are open to hearing your case for more financial aid. Kaplan advises going back to the school and explain why your son or daughter is a "must-have" student, or explain why your financial circumstances may have changed (i.e., like a lost job or a divorce).