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Some fat envelopes (college acceptance letters) have already arrived and many more will soon be mailed. While the congratulations may have died down, the reality of paying for next year's college education has hit home with many families.

There are two basic types of financial aid: merit-based, which rewards strong academic performance or a specific talent, and need-based, which assists families based on their financial need. All families should complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- www.fafsa .ed.gov) so they can determine what the government and colleges consider their expected family contribution (EFC). The EFC drives the need-based financial system.

The EFC is derived from four major factors: total income, assets, family size and number of children in college. A more expensive college may have a higher EFC but still allow you to qualify for financial aid. Here's an example: A family earning $125,000 with a child attending an in-state public university will probably not qualify for aid while a family earning $250,000 with two children attending private colleges probably will. You can also calculate your EFC at www.collegeaboard.com and www.finaid.org.

According to Cappex (www.cappex.com), about $11 billion in merit aid is available, and nearly all colleges offer merit aid scholarships. The good news is that on average, 1 in 4 undergraduates receives merit aid scholarships, averaging $5,000. Not all the awards focus on grade point averages -- there are scholarships for leadership, community service or school involvement. Many of the awards can be renewed year after year.

What does this mean? Private schools that you generally considered out-of-reach financially may actually be affordable, possibly even costing less than attending an in-state institution.

>Tactics for getting aid

So how can you maximize your chances of receiving merit-based aid?

*Apply where your efforts and performance will be recognized: You have a much better chance of receiving merit-based aid if your grades and test scores put you in the top 25 percent of the student body. Another way to measure this is with a school's reported standardized test scores. Example: When a college reports that its SAT middle 50 percent is 550-650, that means that 50 percent of students scored in that range, while 25 percent of students scored above 650 and 25 percent scored below 550. This information is in college guidebooks and on college websites.

*Research the financial aid link on a college's website: Search each college website for specific merit-based scholarship opportunities. Some require separate applications with essays and interviews, and some colleges will consider all students that complete their applications by a specific deadline.

*Check out other resources: There are lots of web-based resources: www.meritaid.com, www.finaid.org, www.fastweb.com, www.gocollege.com and www.scholarships.com are great places to start.

Ask about renewal terms: Colleges and scholarships differ on their renewal qualifications. Some have minimal standards and others have high grade-point average hurdles. Make sure you won't get caught attending a college where you aren't 100 percent sure you can commit to scholarship renewal terms. There is little worse than loving a college but finding yourself denied a scholarship renewal because your GPA slips.

Need-based aid is typically renewed as long as courses are passed and canceled only if a family's financial situation dramatically changes.

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Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.