To make the process easier, get yourself on a manageable plan, focus on the savings goal each month rather than the large end figure, and have your savings stowed away automatically, FinAid's Kantrowitz advises. "Once you get started," he says, "you become accustomed to not spending that money."
Explore last-minute options: If you are beginning college this fall, don't assume it's too late to find scholarships, SimpleTuition's Walker says. Use these next few weeks to scour the Internet, community listings, and your high school's counseling office for any last-minute sources of aid or scholarship money that went unused in the traditional school year award period. Other scholarships have deadlines throughout the calendar year. In an online scholarship search, specify what state you live in to help you find local results, Walker recommends.
Students can also use the Web to find summer contests, such as the one being held through July on Mangan's site, MyDebtStory.com. In an effort to create a community of financial aid users, the newly launched Web site is offering $5,000 to the highest user-rated video of how to pay for college. If you have other tips not listed, the site welcomes video success stories of students who have mastered the financial aid process, too.
Though these types of contests won't garner money for the majority of students who enter, the process can at least be informative—and possibly therapeutic, Mangan notes."We've found that people sometimes feel hopeless about this," he says. "The simple act of sharing their story and knowing they're not alone gives them a sense of relief from the burden they feel in carrying the education debt."
Do you have tips for navigating the financial aid process? Share with us in the comments section or on our Best Colleges Facebook page.