3. Don't let deadlines push you into private loans. You can obtain federal money as fast (or faster) than you can get private money, says Chany. File your federal aid application (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA), online and "and in as quickly as two days, the school can have your results," he says.
4. Investigate state and local money. Some states have financial aid agencies that lend college tuition money, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org. While there are fewer of these than a few years ago, it's worth finding out if it's an option for you.
5. Hit the Web. Sites like FinAid.org will help you research the range of rates that lenders are charging, along with some of the fees and terms. Use this data to narrow your list of lenders before you start making applications.
And be careful about making assumptions based on best rate/worst rate information, says Kantrowitz. "Less than 10 percent of borrowers get the best rate," he says. "Two-thirds or more get the worst rate."
6. Pull your credit history. Get a (free) copy of your credit report, and pay to get your credit score, too, says Daniel T. Barkowitz, director of student financial aid and employment at MIT. If your parents will be co-signing, have them do the same. When you talk with lenders, advise them of the credit scores, and ask what kind of rates and terms they can offer. Just how open and precise are they willing to be?
7. Check on the financial health of your lender. Worst case scenario: You shop around, find a great rate, and the company goes under or stops making new loans, says Chany. Now you have to take your history and your score (which could be lower thanks to the first round of shopping), to a new lender, and you might not get as good a rate. Check your bank's rating first.
8. Research the loan before you apply. Since many of the same lenders broker both public and private money, it can be confusing to borrowers, says Chany. "A lot of people went for private loans thinking they were getting federal loans," he says.
Before you apply you need to know: What is the loan? How much will you receive? Who is the lender? What is its reputation? Is the loan private or government-backed? What is the range of rates? If the rate is variable, how is it calculated? Is there a cap on the rate? What are the fees? What are the repayment terms?
9. Shop carefully. After you narrow your list, limit the number of applications you file. Advice from advocates and loan consultants varies, but the general rule of thumb is to keep your applications to three or no more than four. Keep those applications within a two-week period. (Kantrowitz even recommends keeping them within one week.) That way, if the bureau bundles them for the purpose of calculating your score, they'll count as one. And if it doesn't, since the inquiries won't be rolled into your FICO score for a month, you'll have a couple of weeks to make your decision before your score is affected.
And while the inquiries will be dropped from your credit report in two years, they will only affect your FICO score for one year. That means that when you apply for a loan next year, you should have a clean slate.