Schools suggest students gather information such as parents' income and recent tax returns before sitting down to fill out net price calculators. But Kelchen notes that families don't have this information handy outside of tax season.
"Students and their families who sit down and expect an estimated aid package immediately will often be disappointed," Kelchen wrote.
Enlisting the help of a teacher or school counselor can also help ease the process, experts say.
3. Understanding the results: The No. 1 thing students and parents need to understand about net price calculator results is they are only estimates.
"We generally tell people to use them to figure out whether a school is in or out of the ballpark, rather than ruling out colleges based on a difference of $50 or a few hundred dollars," Cheng says.
Net price calculators also only provide estimates for one year. Colleges may front-load the estimate with grants and scholarships only available to freshmen, meaning a student's net price could vary drastically his or her sophomore, junior and senior years.
"Colleges are not required to have standard net price calculators, which can confuse students who wish to apply to multiple colleges," Kelchen adds, noting that schools may differ in the way they display the results.
Some colleges may provide two estimates with their calculators. One is the actual net price – tuition, fees, room and board and expenses, minus grants and scholarships. The other includes estimates for loans and work study, which can make the school appear more affordable, cautions Cheng.
Families should focus only on the net price when comparing schools, she says.
If students have questions about the estimate, experts say they should go directly to the source – the college.
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.