Q: My niece is a US citizen by birth, but grew up and attended school outside the country. Now she is graduating from high school and wants to go to college in the U.S. I need to know how to fill out the financial aid forms, using whose income and tax returns – or does she apply on her own? Please, we need some help!

A: As a U.S. citizen, your niece is entitled to apply for government student aid, and she can also be considered for other scholarships that are for U.S. citizens or green cardholders only. The process may seem daunting to you, but there is lots of assistance available.

Your first step is to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) online. This document must be filed before most aid offers can be processed. Each state has a different deadline; in New York it is June 30. However, it is advisable to submit the completed application as soon as possible. Please remember that the first word in the FAFSA title is "Free"; that means there is no processing fee. You should not pay anyone to help you complete this form, nor should you pay anyone who "guarantees" that he or she can obtains scholarships for your niece.

The FAFSA forms and other financial aid applications are usually completed – if the student is a minor -- by the adult who claims the student as a dependent on Federal income tax forms. Are you legally responsible for your niece's educational expenses? Or does someone else claim her as a dependent?

The best place to start is the FAFSA website: www.fafsa.ed.gov -- and note that .gov is at the end of the address. This means it is a genuine government website. Beware of imitation sites that look like the FAFSA website but end in .com – in fact, stay away from any .com websites connected to scholarships (unless these are websites of companies with scholarship competitions). Scholarship information should be free! You can also call the FAFSA office, toll-free, at 1-800-4-FED-AID or 1-800-433-3243. They will tell you if you are the one who ought to be completing the application forms.

Most colleges will require applicants to have completed the FAFSA (and sometimes also require the CSS Profile, a College Board form) in order to be considered for aid. There are many independent scholarships offered by civic, ethnic, and religious organizations, veterans' groups, and special-interest groups (such as accountancy, engineering, and arts organizations). The College Board publishes a detailed Scholarship Handbook each year listing these. Deadlines for these scholarships range from October to June of a student's senior year.

Please remember that outright scholarships and grants are gifts, and do not have to be repaid. However, a huge amount of student aid comes in the form of loans (which have to be repaid) and work-study (where a student is given an on-campus job to defray part of the cost of attending).

It is terrific that you have stepped up to assist your niece in pursuing her higher education. I suggest that your starting-point should be with the FAFSA help desk to learn about the exact steps that you need to take.