Deadlines are approaching to apply for financial aid, and those who get ahead of the curve in qualifying for aid will have a better chance at securing funding, advisers say.

Some schools have a "priority" deadline of Feb. 15, and most federal, state and institutional aid is provided on a first come, first served basis, and some funds are limited.

The first step in qualifying for aid is submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. FAFSA is the primary method for determining eligibility for nine federal student-aid programs, 605 state-aid programs and, often, assistance from your school.

The "expected family contribution" is one of the most important factors affecting eligibility. The EFC is typically deducted from an award package — in other words, the EFC is the minimum amount that a student is expected to contribute. If the EFC is above the cost of tuition, that may make a student ineligible for need-based aid. A calculator is on the FAFSA website; an alternative is this calculator provided by the College Board.

Parents should begin preparing the financial aid for their children as early as their children's junior year in high school. Aid programs assume 20 percent of your child’s assets will go to tuition. Peterson's, an education services provider, recommends reducing that percentage in one of two ways: Parents can qualify for a 5.6 percent rate by transferring their children's funds into an account in their name, or into a custodial account, which would belong to the dependent student.

A student's FAFSA information will automatically go to the schools they select and to the relevant state agencies. If a student filed a FAFSA last year, he or she only needs to submit a renewal to include updates. Submitting a FAFSA will not diminish other awards a student may be eligible for, such as those provided through the G.I. Bill.

After submitting a FAFSA, students should update the program and school(s) if their financial situation changes.

A congressional investigation revealed that it's unlawful for schools to "require students submit forms other than FAFSA," according to a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some schools offer early decision/action admissions. Students considering accepting one of these offers, should do so in light of the bigger student-aid picture, according to Peterson's.

Petersons notes that if students are locked in at one school before they have the chance to consider the financial support at other schools, they may end up paying more tuition than they could have. (A caveat: some schools consider early offer acceptance to be non-binding.)

Other options to consider include merit-based awards offered by numerous outside organizations, as well as the school and the department of a student's major.,, and have information on merit-based awareds.

As a last resort, students could borrow. But, if they do, the federal programs are usually best.