Sometimes the hard part about embarking on a new goal is knowing where to begin. Going back to school is a worthy goal, but with today’s high college tuition and complicated financial aid system, it can require more planning than it seems. For instance: the FAFSA. Understanding how to prepare for the FAFSA seems like a good place to start your back-to-school plan, but actually, the real beginning is a couple of steps before that.

Here are 3 pre-FAFSA steps to prepare you for financial aid applications.

1) Define your education objective.

  • Are you interested in a career-focused education program that will prepare or certify you for a specific career or job? (Examples of these include a professional diploma in culinary arts or paralegal studies, an associate degree in nursing or medical assistance, and a bachelor’s degree in accounting.)
  • Or are you looking forward to obtaining a 4-year university degree to enhance your life or advance the career you’re settled in? These objectives are equally worthy—it just helps to have an objective clearly defined at the start, even if you revise your plan down the road.

Courseadvisor Articles & Resources2) If your education objective is earning a certificate or degree for a new career, do a little research on the salary and working environment you can expect in that job.

  • Look for the career or job you’re considering on CourseAdvisor.com or the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupation Handbook website. These sites can give you information on how much you’re likely to earn, the typical work-hours, typical tasks, what kind of education and training is required, and how much demand there will be for that job over the next 10 years.
  • These details are important because they can help you decide how much it makes sense to pay for the education and training the job requires (how much bang you’ll get for your buck).
  • If demand for the job is dropping, you may change your mind about going to school for it unless you live in an area where there is still a need for that occupation.
  • Or, if the career’s average pay is low, you’ll have that in mind when you start considering the price of education programs.

3) Do a little comparison-shopping between education programs.

  • Now that you know what kind of education program you’ll need to achieve your objective and how much you’re likely to earn in the job you’ll qualify for after you graduate for, you can get an idea of a reasonable amount to spend on college tuition.
  • You may get financial aid to cover most of the cost, but if you have to take out loans, most financial aid experts say you should base how much you borrow on how much you’ll earn after graduation, so you don’t drown in debt. (Here’s where the research on average salary is helpful.)
  • Liz Pulliam Weston at MSNBC Money recommends that you limit your student loan(s) to an amount that will cost you no more than 10% of your expected monthly gross income after you graduate.

The goal of these 3 pre-FAFSA steps is to define what you want to accomplish in school and get an idea of what your chosen program is likely to cost. Having this information will help you prepare for how much financial aid you’ll need after your FAFSA is processed.