Be cost conscious. Nowadays, students should include a few affordable schools - schools that are low cost or likely to give big scholarships - on their list. That means applying to at least one in-state public university or community college. To further increase chances for aid, students should also apply to schools that need whatever unique diversity, talents, or grades they offer. One common strategy: Apply to one or two schools in which the student's grades and test scores are in the top 25 percent of the student body. Students of either gender can also apply to one or two schools that are short on their gender - boys to liberal arts schools, for example, or . Most colleges post grade, score, and demographic information on their websites. Students who want to look for several schools that might serve as safety options can use the selection tool at the U.S News Web site
Be wary of early. In late fall of their senior year, students should consider bucking the trend toward applying "early decision," to increase chances of admission. Too often, those fat letters arrive in December with a price-less aid. Linda Taylor, a private financial aid counselor in Agoura Hills, Calif., advises students concerned about affordability to use standard or nonbinding "early action" applications instead.
That %$#& form! In early January, it's time to throw out some government advice. Don't believe the Department of Education's claim that it takes only about an hour to fill out the 124-question Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Set aside several hours to round up tax forms, pay stubs, and other documentation. And expect to spend at least a couple of hours making entries on the FAFSA and its work sheets.
The FAFSA is supposed to determine who really can't afford tuition and thus should receive need-based grants. Typically, students from families with incomes of less than $40,000 receive federal Pell grants. Students from families earning two or three times that amount may be able to show enough expenses to receive state or college grants.
But even wealthy students must fill out the form to qualify for some college merit scholarships as well as the federal government's Stafford program, which offers reasonably priced loans to students regardless of need.
Don't wait for the taxman. Parents should also ignore the form's recommendation that they file their taxes before tackling the FAFSA. Since many schools hand out most of their aid money in late winter and early spring, it is wiser to fill out the FAFSA in early January using estimates based on the previous year's taxes. Parents can do their taxes and update the FAFSA later.
Don't count the ex-hubby. Unfortunately, there aren't many last-minute legitimate financial maneuvers to get the FAFSA to spit out a lower Expected Family Contribution-the amount the government estimates the family should pay for college.
But families can at least avoid mistakes that make them look richer than they really are. Divorced families, for example, need only report the income of the parent with whom the child lives at least 51 percent of the time, which isn't necessarily the parent taking the child's income tax deduction.
Also, for all its questions, the FAFSA misses many legitimate expenses that can reduce a family's ability to pay tuition, such as medical emergencies or care for a relative. Parents who feel the FAFSA doesn't fairly describe their financial situation, or who have suffered a job loss or pay cut, should immediately send letters explaining their circumstances to the financial aid offices considering the student's application.
Spring forward. The feeling of financial frustration ratchets up in spring, when offer letters arrive. The reason: It's difficult to compare offers from competing schools because schools use different words to make their awards sound more appealing than those of their competitors.
Worse, some offer letters are misleading. Some schools give big merit scholarships with hidden strings (like unrealistically high grade-point minimums) that make it unlikely the student will receive the same award in the future. Before popping the champagne and sending a deposit, students should ask the terms for renewing each scholarship and what percentage of others have kept similar scholarships.
Many schools also include five-figure PLUS loans in their awards. Independent counselors like Taylor call this misleading. At about 8 percent, the loans-available to any parent with at least average credit-aren't much of a deal, she argues. And, of course, they must be paid back.
Do the college math. To decode each offer, students should come up with a realistic total cost of attendance for each school: adding tuition, fees, room, board, and about $3,500 for extras like textbooks, travel, cellphone, clothes, and Saturday-night pizzas. Then subtract the annual grants and scholarships likely to be renewed. Finally, multiply that number by five, since only a minority of students manage to earn a degree in four years these days.