It’s the time of year when college-bound seniors apply for financial aid—and this year, many are turning to the internet to streamline the process.

Gone are the days of wrestling with complicated paper applications and waiting several weeks for a response. New internet tools and improvements to existing resources make the process easier than ever.

The federal government, the nation’s largest source of college aid, will provide more than $50 billion in financial aid to students across America this year. With improvements to its online application process, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) expects a majority of students to apply online.

To get federal aid, students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a form that determines a student’s eligibility for government assistance.

Students can get the FAFSA form online. At the FAFSA web site, new applicants can complete the form online, but then they have to print, sign, and mail it.

Using the electronic form makes the application process faster and helps students avoid mistakes, according to ED.

Up to 14 percent of paper applications are returned to the applicant because of errors, ED estimated. By filling out the form online, students can avoid delays because the software immediately detects errors and allows for on-the-spot corrections. Applicants cannot skip fields or enter text when numbers are required, for instance.

Starting this year, students who have applied before can use a digital signature and file the form online.

“Students who have applied for financial aid before can use a PIN number to sign the application electronically,” said Lisa Cain, a spokeswoman for ED’s student financial assistance agency. “The entire application can be processed in a couple of days.”

FAFSA is in the process of offering this service to new applicants as well. The PIN number also lets students access information about their account online, such as the status of their application or their outstanding balance.

Scholarships are another way students can ease the financial burden of rising college tuition. And students can find a bevy of scholarship sites on the web.

Embark.com is a web site that houses a searchable database of more than 600,000 scholarships available from schools and organizations across the country.

With the click of a button, students can find scholarships they qualify for by matching their grades, talents, or interests to the scholarships listed in the database, according to Embark.com.

“There are so many [scholarships] out there, finding one that applies to you increases your chances of getting it,” said Katie Madden, a company spokeswoman.

The site tells how to apply for scholarships and what the deadlines are. Embark.com also offers comprehensive advice about going to college and links to federal forms.

“We serve as a central research tool,” Madden said about the privately funded site that has no online advertisements. The site also features an online FAFSA calculator to help students and their parents figure out how much they will owe after receiving federal aid.

FinancialLearning.com, a new initiative by General Electric, also offers financial planning advice to its users from outside experts. The site’s goal is to create a more financially aware consumer.

“College is one of the things that people spend big money on,” said Ray Loewe of College Money, who acted as an advisor to the Saving for Education portion of the web site. “The site talks about the problems involved with paying for college.”

Saving for Education addresses four major areas: the financial aid package, negotiating a price with a college, paying for the balance, and avoiding college loan debt into retirement.

“People need an unintimidating place to go for information,” Loewe said. “You’ll see tons and tons of information” without advertising on the FinancialLearning.com site, he promised.

U.S. Department of Education’s financial aid site
http://ed.gov/studentaid

Free Application for Federal Student Aid
http://www.fafsa.ed.gov

Embark.com
http://embrk.com

FinancialLearning.com
http://www.financiallearning.com