1) Take the FAFSA.

One of the first steps you should do when considering attending college is to take the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which can be found online at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov. You can also speak with the financial advisors at whichever financial institution you‘re interested in attending and they can help you fill it out, usually free of charge.

This application helps determine what sort of federal financial aid, grants or loans you might be eligible for. Using the information you enter, the Department of Education calculates your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and then shares it with the educational institution(s) of your choice, who then formulates a sort of “personal budget” for you by compiling the costs of tuition, fees, books, program charges and other necessary expenses for the school year for which you applied. They then subtract the amount of your EFC, plus any grants or federal loans you might be eligible for from the total Cost of Attendance. At this point, you aren’t tied into any contracts, it’s just to see what you’re eligible for. It takes approximately 15 minutes and is well worth the time.

4 Smart Steps To Take Before Attending School

2) Plan ahead.

Before choosing your school, going after a certain diploma or certificate, make a plan as to how you’ll be putting all of this hard work and expense to use and research your chosen field carefully. Is it a prospering field? Will there be an increased or decreased demand for your skills when you are ready to employ them? Are the average wages going to be enough to adequately cover the cost of living and repay your educational debts?

According to Forbes.com the worst college majors, chosen in 2012 based on past, current and forecasted unemployment rates and average starting pay, were anthropology & archaeology; film, video & photographic arts; fine arts; liberal arts; music; physical fitness & parks recreation; commercial art & graphic design; history; English language & literature; and philosophy & religious studies.

At the other end of the spectrum, economists at the compensation research firm PayScale compiled a list of the most successful majors. Biomedical engineering came in first place, followed by biochemistry; computer science; software engineering; environmental engineering; civil engineering; petroleum engineering; mathematics; physics; and statistics.

This isn’t to say that the majors on the worst list are terrible choices, nor do the purportedly successful majors guarantee actual success. Future demand is just one of many aspects a prospective student should consider before investing great deals of time and money.

3) Shop around.

Different educational institutions in different states have varied Cost of Attendance for what can basically amount to the same education, diplomas and certificates. Compare pricing from different schools in your state, from private universities to community colleges. Ask yourself whether it’s absolutely imperative that you receive your bachelor’s degree from an impressive university, or might the lower-priced community college fulfill your needs just as well for a fraction of the cost.

In Florida, for example, based on a comparison of rates from university websites for the 2012-2013 school year, a 4-year bachelor’s degree from a private university can cost approximately $160,000; the same at a public university costs about $26,000, while students attending Daytona State College will spend only about $14,000.

4) Create a strong financial plan.

Keep a detailed list of where your money is coming from and where it’s going. Investing in reputable financial planning software can help keep you on track. No penny is too small to be accounted for; those pennies may someday mean the difference between a defaulted loan and a paid debt.

Also, make good use of people trained to counsel you in specific financial matters such as the financial advisors at your prospective colleges. Instead of filling out loan applications online, take the time to go in and speak to a loan specialist at your bank (after having applied for your FAFSA, of course, which can easily be done online). Often specialists will have insight on the best way to get you lower interest rates and can recommend possible options for debt consolidation, which helps lower interest in the long run. Be aware that when you’ll often be shown a range of possible interest rates; don’t write anything ink until they’ve responded with an approved rate, and even then, shop around a little to find the best terms and offers.

It’s also a good idea to visit The Department of Education’s Know Before You Owe website at http://www.consumerfinance.gov/students/knowbeforeyouowe/ and print out several copies of their template, one for each prospective educational institute you‘re looking to attend, as well as for each student loan you are looking to take out. Using their template, you can easily and quickly fill in and refer back to all of the pertinent numbers and details regarding what your education might cost you should you take different routes. Seeing them complied together may help keep you on track better than if the numbers are scattered across many sheaves of paper, and it’s possible that you may be able to negotiate better interest rates or terms if you can tell a loan specialist what you’ve been offered elsewhere.