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Before you pick your college and sign the note on your student loan, you actually have important work to do. Getting prepared early can help inform you to make the best educational choices – including lowering the amount of money you borrow for school. At the risk of oversimplifying, the less you borrow, the less student loan debt you will have.

Here are some things to get settled before you start sending out your college applications:

1. Take the tests

This is especially important if you’re going straight from high school to college, or going on to graduate school. The big ones are the ACT, SAT, and AP tests if you’re in high school. Most colleges and universities will require scores from either the ACT or SAT tests, preferably both. The higher the score on either, the better the chance for you to get into the school you want. However, you can have a less than perfect score and still get into a very good school.

Also, knowing your scores can help you plan your education. Scores are a large part of the search criteria on the ionMatch search service. AP, or Advanced Placement, is a bit different. This test, applied to individual subjects, is designed to see what classes you need to take when you do enter college. Do well on, say, an AP English test and you don’t have to worry about taking English in your first year of college. Which also means one less class to pay for, and a bit of savings on your tuition bill. That’s definitely worth some extra effort.

These scores may not matter quite as much if you’re going to a community college or career advancement school. However, if you have the opportunity, take the tests anyway. They can also show what your strengths are, give you confidence, and may be needed later in your educational career.

If you’re planning on graduate school, there are required tests: GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT. The LSAT and MCAT are specialized tests for law school and medical school respectively. The GMAT is often used by graduate business schools, and the GRE can be used for most other fields. Graduate schools can weigh these scores differently, so call if there is a particular school that interests you and ask about their score requirements.

2. Get your finances sorted out

Get it all sorted out. You need to know what your or your family’s assets are. How much can you pay right now? One of the best ways to do that is look at all your bills, all your income, and set a budget. People sometimes stress about creating a budget, but having one and reviewing it weekly/monthly really can give you peace of mind. Budgeting is a very important skill to have, in both your personal and professional life. There are great budgeting tools, like ionMange, that can keep you and your budget on track.

Once you can find out what money you have available, you’ll know what you can afford to pay now. The more tuition that you can pay now, while you’re actually in school, the less you will have to borrow and the more you can save for your future. This is also great information that that will help you when you start looking at schools, you’ll learn more about this using the school selection tool, ionMatch.

3. Fill out FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is for more than just loans. Ideally, it’s filled out and submitted in February. (Starting in 2016, you can file it as early as October!) However, it can be submitted at any time. The earlier it’s submitted, the more opportunities you will have for financial aid. Many aid programs are first-come, first-serve and only have a finite amount of money per year. Get in early and you get the better chance for receiving federal aid. Don’t forget, schools will also use the FAFSA to see what aid they can offer you directly. Plus, this is where all your previous work on tests and finances comes in handy. Those are parts of the FAFSA. So fill it out and send it in. Now.

4. Look into scholarships

This goes along with figuring out your finances and trying for advanced placement. The less you actually have to borrow, the better. Schools will work with you to find scholarships to help you pay for school. But don’t limit it to just the schools. If you’re in high school, go to the guidance counselor’s office. They will have resources and information about scholarship opportunities. Look at community organizations, civic groups, professional associations, churches, and other groups. The scholarships may not be huge, but even $500 per year are a few credit hours that you won’t have to borrow to pay for. Just like with finances, this information that will help you when selecting schools through ionMatch.

5. Know what you want

This is in some ways the hardest part but it can also be the most important. What DO you want to learn and do? Think about what you enjoy doing. In a perfect world, you’d get paid great money doing something that you love, or might even do for free. How do you make that happen? There’s no exact recipe, but you can find a field that you do enjoy, where you feel fulfilled and can advance, and earn the right income. Think of the subjects in school that you enjoyed, whether it was English, Math, Music, or Auto Shop. If you study and go into a field that you already like, the better the chance you have to finish your studies and do well. Research your favorite ideas, both on what would be required and the income potential they have. This will help when selecting fields and schools on ionMatch.

If you still don’t know what you want to do, don’t worry. There are people in their 40s and 50s who’ve changed their minds and are still figuring it out. As Tara explored in her recent post, there are other always options to move forward. A two-year program at a local college may be a very good choice. Attending community college will let you keep moving forward and even give you a chance to look at other subjects and fields that you couldn’t in high school, such as legal and medical fields.

The majority of community college credits will transfer to four-year schools. Regardless of where you are in the process, the more planning and advance work you can do, the easier it can be in the long run. The better prepared you are, the better the decisions you make can be. That’s always worth your time and a little extra effort.

For information about the beneficial student loan management tools from, we invite you to watch this short overview. Like what you see? Sign up for your account here!

Tom Wray

Tom Wray is all about the research, getting it right, and making it relevant. He’s got solid journalistic experience in all forms of content delivery – and he’s got his keyboard humming with what’s up and important for students, college admins, parents, employers and news junkies. Follow him on Twitter at @iontuition.