Top 10 Tips for Planning and Paying for College

1. Make the most of high school academics and activities.

Use your time in high school to get yourself ready for college. Select courses that meet college admissions requirements, not just high school graduation requirements. Take challenging classes that build strong verbal, mathematics, and reasoning skills. Develop your interests and talents through additional activities. Keep a portfolio to record your accolades such as awards; involvement in sports, clubs, or community groups; volunteer efforts; summer jobs; and more. The following websites will help you begin the college prep process:

2. Find a college that fits you.

There are more than 4,300 degree granting colleges and universities in the United States. Use the Internet, guidebooks, brochures, campus visits, and college fairs to find schools that meet your academic and personal needs. When considering the kind of college you are interested in, consider some of the following factors: 1) Type: In what kind of academic environment do you excel? 2) Size: With what size school are you most comfortable? 3) Location: In what kind of physical environment do you feel comfortable? 4) Facilities: What facilities do you need to make the most of your college experience? You'll be surprised at how many schools fit your needs. The Internet is a great place to begin your search and the following are two good sites to get you started:

3. Take appropriate standardized tests.

The SAT and/or the ACT are usually required for college admissions, but requirements vary from college to college. Make sure you know exactly which test(s) you need to take. Plan to take the SAT and/or ACT during your spring semester of your junior year in high school. If needed, additional retests can be taken in the early fall of your senior year. Use a test prep book or online practice tool to get ready. There are also official practice tests (PSAT and PLAN) that can be taken during your sophomore year or fall of junior year. When registering, ask if you are eligible for a fee waiver. Testing information is available online for the SAT and for the ACT.

4. Familiarize yourself with the college application process.

Understand this process early so that you are ready to apply in the fall of your senior year of high school. Make a list of all deadlines and required recommendations, essays, transcripts, test scores, etc. The process may seem overwhelming, but if you stay organized you'll realize that it is really only a few step process. Also, ask your guidance counselor if you are eligible for application fee waivers. For additional planning information, visit the following:

5. Investigate scholarship opportunities early.

You don't have to have a 4.0 GPA or be a star athlete to qualify for free money! Scholarships are based on a variety of criteria and can be found on the Internet, in scholarship guides, and through sponsoring groups. Stay organized during your scholarship search by keeping a list with deadlines and requirements. If you can't apply online, be sure to leave enough time to request, complete, and mail a hard copy.

6. Beware of scholarship scams.

No one can guarantee you a scholarship in advance, and you should never have to pay a fee for scholarship searches. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Check with your guidance counselor or the Better Business Bureau before engaging the services of any private scholarship search companies. More advice about how to avoid scholarship scams is available at the following websites:

7. Understand college costs.

In addition to tuition, room and board, you also will need to cover fees, books, transportation, and personal expenses. Some costs you can't control, but controlling those you can, like personal expenses, can make a huge difference. Be sure to also compare public school versus private school costs and realize that your actual costs may be lower than a college's published tuition rates depending on your financial aid package.

8. Research your eligibility for federal and state financial aid.

Two-thirds of all full-time undergraduate students receive some kind of financial aid, so odds are you are eligible, too. The federal government has a formula that determines the amount your family is expected to contribute to your college costs. Any costs above that have a chance to be covered by financial aid. Additional eligibility information can be found on the following websites:

9. Complete the FAFSA annually in January.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is required to be considered for federal student aid. It can also be required by colleges, state agencies, and some scholarships. Complete the FAFSA for the first time as early as you can during the spring semester of your senior year of high school and every year thereafter that you are in college. The new FAFSA form is updated and available each year in January, and the sooner you apply, the better your chances are to receive the maximum amount of financial aid for which you are eligible. Go to www.fafsa.gov for more information.

10. Explore student and parent loans.

There are loans that are specifically designed to help students and parents meet the cost of college. You should only borrow what you need, however. Start with federal student loan programs, which usually provide the best terms. Federal Perkins Loans are fixed-interest-rate loans for students with high financial need. Federal Stafford Loans are low-interest-rate loans for students attending college at least half time. Federal PLUS Loans allow parents to borrow for each dependent undergraduate student who is enrolled in college at least half time. For more information on these types of loans and others, check out the following websites: