Crunch the numbers.
Tuition is just the start, so estimate every cost—housing, food, and books. The sooner you know the numbers, the sooner you can start looking for aid (and developing your budgeting skills).
Learn the lingo.
FAFSA, SAR, EFC—is it the world's scariest bowl of alphabet soup? No, it's the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the Student Aid Report, and the Expected Family Contribution, respectively. Knowing them is key to affording college (and not all that scary).
Apply on time.
Colleges use the FAFSA as a starting point to determine your eligibility for financial aid. Filling out the FAFSA (fafsa.ed.gov) is easy, but you need to make sure you do it on time to secure the funds for which you're eligible.
Once you've completed your FAFSA, make sure you submit any additional documents that might be requested. Stay on top of the financial aid process by carefully reading your e-mail and all the letters you receive.
Work with the school.
You might be surprised how hard a college will work to help you afford to attend. The fact is, they know where the money is, and they'll help you find it.
Shop for scholarships.
There are need-based, merit-based, and some—like community scholarships—based on a single special talent or a defined set of characteristics. Search online, and even ask teachers, administrators, coaches, and counselors. You'll be amazed at what you find.
Look in strange places.
Are you an accomplished duck caller? Over 6'2"? Thinking about making a prom dress out of duct tape? There's money out there for you, and finding it can be half the fun (and yes, those scholarships do exist).
Show up to work.
Having a job (or jobs) and saving during high school and throughout college is key. Most colleges offer work-study programs, and a part-time job can actually help you focus on classes (seriously).
Finish on time.
Every additional semester you spend on your degree generates all kinds of expenses, and (are you sitting down?) delaying your entry into the workforce can cost you around $250,000 over the course of your career.
Defer to better judgment.
Your dream college might not come true for you—not right away, at least. Once accepted, you can apply for a deferment, giving yourself extra time to get your finances in better shape (and show up a lot wiser).