Going into the financial aid process blindly can be a confusing tangle of dead ends, backtracking, and -- in many cases -- traps.
That's why we've listed some of the biggest -- and most costly -- financial aid traps we've come across over the years... and how you can avoid them.
1. The Confusing Financial Aid Award
If you are confused by your financial aid letter, do not feel bad -- a very common mistake in the financial aid process is misunderstanding where the money for your package is coming from.
Colleges use various sources to fund financial aid packages and they do not all necessarily save you money. Unfortunately, the financial aid letter is rarely clear about what type of aid you will be given (loan or grant) or how much you will owe in the long run.
The only way to effectively understand exactly where your aid is coming from and how much money you will owe is to ask questions.
Look at each item listed in your package and ask the college's financial aid office whether it is a loan or a grant. For loans, find out the interest rates, details about the maturation of the loan, and piece together what it will cost you in the long-term.
For grants, find out how and when the money will be dispersed. Some schools will provide the entire grant at the beginning, while others will spread it out over four years.
Be sure you understand every detail of your financial aid package, no matter how confusing it may seem.
2. The Fear of High Prices
Many students are quickly scared away from applying to private schools when they see a yearly price tag in the range of $40 to $60,000.
However, the sticker price is far less important than the net price. This is the total amount you will pay out of pocket to attend a college after aid and other variables like travel or room and board are factored in.
The more expensive schools often offer far more financial aid, meaning your cost to attend could drop drastically to the range of a state school.
Calculate your net cost to attend a university before you cross it off your list for being too overpriced.
3. Drawing From Retirement to Help Defray Expenses
If at all possible you should avoid pulling money from your family's retirement accounts to help fund your college education.
When you withdraw from your IRA, money that was previously not counted as assets in federal financial aid calculations can suddenly negatively affect the amount of aid you receive because it is now counted as income.
Then you may face sharp penalties and fees for drawing from your retirement too early as well as taxes on previously untaxed funds.
4. The Dangers of Procrastination
When it comes to filing for financial aid, there's one thing to remember: do not wait!
Start early and fill out the financial aid application (FAFSA) as soon as possible.
There are many different deadlines for federal, state, and college financial aid programs, and some of them are quite early. Use estimated tax information on the FAFSA if you don't yet have your returns, then come back later and fill in the exact figures.
This way you can meet the early deadlines. Otherwise, you risk missing out on the maximum financial aid package for which you are eligible.
5. Just Because You Need It Doesn't Mean They Give It
Not all colleges fulfill 100 percent of financial need.
Don't assume that your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is all a college will expect you to pay.
Ask each college whether they fulfill 100 percent of financial need, and if not, what percentage of need do they cover. A cheaper school that only covers 70 percent of need could be more expensive than a higher priced school that covers 100 percent.
6. Fixed Financial Aid Packages
Many people assume that if their financial need increases in the future, then their aid package will be accordingly adjusted.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Some schools will not adjust your package for any reason after your first year if college.
This is something you need to find out ahead of time, especially if you expect your need to increase in the future. You don't want to discover in your third year of college that you can no longer afford to pay for it.
Scott Weingold is the publisher of CollegeMadeSimple.com and also co-founder and a principal of College Planning Network, LLC - the nation's largest college admissions and financial aid planning firm. Scott has been ranked the #1 "College Financial Aid Expert Worth Knowing About" in the U.S. by CollegeStats.org, and he co-authored the book, "The Real Secret To Paying For College."