08/16/2012 05:31 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

High School Seniors: The Clock Is Ticking

With only a few weeks until high school seniors head back to school, it's time to get serious about attending college. Hopefully you've visited the colleges you are considering or have plans in place to do so this fall. But as you narrow down your list to the few colleges you'll definitely apply to, make sure you have considered the following:

Prepare yourself: If you are seriously looking at attending college, I'm sure you've heard that over 53% of students are taking 5½ to 6 years to get their four year degree. Every year you are in college, you're paying big money to be there. There are reasons for this ugly trend and some of it has to do with how well prepared you are as a student. Did you take proper classes? Have you taken an SAT or ACT exam? This matters if you want to avoid taking remedial classes which will stretch out the length of time it takes you to earn your degree.

Do you have a plan? Sometimes students have the idea they will get into college and then figure out what they want to do. This is expensive. Do your research; make sure when considering careers you know what individuals in that career do. See if you can do some job shadowing, or at least interact with people in that profession and ask how they spend their day. Becoming disillusioned with your major and changing it adds time and money to your degree.

Other students decide to attend a college because their boyfriend will attend that college or they like the climate in that part of the country. Then once there they realize it's not the right fit for them they'll transfer to a college that's a better fit. Financially, either way it will take you longer to graduate which will drive up the cost. Make sure you choose a college because it meets your academic needs and has a character you can thrive in (intellectual, social, altruistic etc).

Don't forget delayed graduation isn't solely the student's fault. Either some colleges don't offer enough classes, or students cannot get into required classes on time in order to graduate within four years. As budgets are slashed across the country this may become more common. Check out the 4-year graduation rates at the colleges you are considering if the rate is low you may want to rethink your choices.

Cost: Have you gotten estimates on the cost of each college you're considering? Don't go by the sticker price at any college. Think of the sticker price like seats in an airplane or new cars on a lot. What you see in the window of the car isn't what you'll pay, and as for the seats on an airplane, almost everyone on board paid a different amount to be there. So getting an estimate is essential.

Look at how each school distributes financial aid. How much financial need do they typically meet? Some schools meet 100% of the student's need, others less than 50%. This fact alone makes a huge difference to your bottom line. Next, how do they meet that need with loans or with scholarships? All colleges use a combination of loans and scholarships to meet your need. But wouldn't you rather go to a school that met your need with 80% scholarship money rather than 80% in loans? Multiply the loan portion by at least 4 to get an estimate of how much debt you will accumulate by the time you graduate. (Keep this number handy because you'll be using it later.)

Know job projection rates, and starting salaries for the careers you are considering: It's important to know whether you're planning a career in a field that will grow and how much you can expect to earn when starting out in that career. Don't skip this step!! It may be the single most important thing you do. You don't want spend your time and money preparing for a career with no future. There are not many jobs for archeologists. It's great fun to learn about, but if you can't earn a living with it, you should consider it a hobby.

Finally, know what your first year earnings will likely be in the field you're considering. This is where the debt amount you calculated comes in. Once you see what you'll earn compare it with the amount of debt you'll incur at each college you're considering. The debt you take on to earn your degree should not exceed your first year's earnings.

Get Help: A college education is the single biggest investment you will ever make next to buying a home. Most people wouldn't buy a home without enlisting the help of professionals and getting an education is no different. Assistance with this process not only makes it easier, it also ensures you're not paying more than you need to for your education. Look for a company that will help you in the planning process with a high school course planner, SAT and ACT test prep, college cost comparisons including the breakdown of how the school meets financial need, and one that completes all financial aid paperwork not just the FAFSA. Any errors in the paperwork can mean the loss of some or even all of your financial aid. Don't overextend yourself on your education. It's important to be educated but it's equally important to become educated in a financially responsible way.