Be ready to negotiate financial aid offers, especially from private colleges.
Negotiation has become the name of the game. Thanks to a federal lawsuit, colleges no longer standardize aid packages for students accepted at more than one school.
"Now the packages are all over the place," says Kalman Chany, author of "Paying for College Without Going Broke."
Colleges use financial aid to attract desirable students. "[Aid] depends not only on their estimation of what you're able to pay but very keenly on how badly they want you," says Morton Schapiro, an economist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and author of "The Student Aid Game."
What if the offer from your No. 1 school comes in way below expectations?
* Wait a day or so. Financial-aid offices are deluged with calls right after the letters go out.
Call, but be prepared. "You've got one shot to plead your case," Mr. Chany says. "Think out your game plan." Outline any special circumstances that don't show up on the aid forms: changes in your financial situation, or high unreimbursed employment expenses, for example.
* Share offers from other schools. "Parents are now more likely to fax aid offers to another institution," Mr. Schapiro says. You may meet mixed results, but you have little to lose.
* Don't reveal too much. If you're a sure thing, the school has no incentive to sweeten its offer.
Financial-aid officers don't like to admit that they're open to dickering, of course. And "at most public institutions, there is no negotiation process," says Linda Gonzalez-Hensgen, director of financial aid at the University of Texas, El Paso.