The higher your credit scores, the better shot you have of getting a loan or credit card application approved. Improving your credit scores takes time, but it can be done.

Start by getting free copies of your three major credit reports at the government-authorized site annualcreditreport.com.

1. Check your reports for accuracy. Financial columnist Liz Weston, author of "Your Credit Score," says to look for credit cards or other accounts that aren't yours, negative entries that are more than seven years old, duplicate past-due items and incorrect Social Security number or date of birth.

2. Dispute errors. Credit bureaus are required by law to investigate mistakes you bring to their attention and report back to you. Typically, they ask the creditor that reported the past-due information to check its records. If the creditor can't verify the info or doesn't respond, the item should be deleted.

3. Pay your bills on time. Payment history makes up more than one-third of the typical credit score determination, Weston says, so paying bills on time all the time is essential to maintaining good scores. If you're forgetful, consider setting up automatic payments through your bank.

4. Pay down your debts. Lenders look at how much of your available credit on cards and credit lines you are using. If you are maxed out or close to it, lenders could assume you're on the financial edge and not lend you money.

5. Keep credit cards and other revolving accounts open. You may be tempted to close old accounts you're not using, but that won't help your credit scores and may actually hurt them. It reduces the amount of your available credit, which can lead to lower scores.