Finance Authority of Maine (FAME) will be holding 27 In-Person Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Help Sessions around the state in January and February for parents with children planning to attend college or trade or technical school in the fall. For details, go to www.FAMEmaine.com/FAFSA.

The FAFSA is a federal application that all schools use to determine student eligibility for federal financial aid, and many states, including Maine, and schools also use FAFSA to distribute their own need-based financial aid. The FAFSA for the 2015-2016 school year, which became available on January 1, can be found at www.fafsa.gov.

FAME itself is offering three $1,000 scholarships for participants that complete the FAFSA at the in-person help sessions or through FAME's online support program. Winners will be randomly selected at the beginning of May 2015.

Fill out the FAFSA as early as possible. Each state and school has its own deadline, and some schools award aid on a first-come, first-served basis. Tax information can be estimated for the FAFSA (using 2013 tax returns or 2014 W-2 forms or final pay stubs) and updated later.

If families can't attend an in-person help session, they can visit FAME for FASFA Online Help, or call 1-800-228-3734 with questions.

The FAFSA is just one step in the process. Other items include asking if a school has additional applications required for the school's financial aid; making sure to send all documents required by a school; and knowing the difference between federal and private student loans.

Compare awards from each school by focusing on the "net price," the cost minus grants and scholarships (funds that don't have to be repaid). Search for scholarships, and continue to do so throughout the year.

Never pay to apply for a scholarship. Free sources of information include FAMEmaine.com/education, a searchable database of Maine-based scholarships for students; Maine Community Foundation (www.mainecf.org); and Fastweb.com, Zinch.com and/or Bigfuture.collegeboard.org, which have information on national scholarships.