For the families of college-bound students, November represents not only the kickoff month for another holiday season, but also the less eagerly anticipated start to the college financial aid process.

Every year, parents become mired in the details of forms, deadlines and alphabet-soup terms such as “FAFSA,” “COA” and “EFC.” And many are surprised to learn that this process is more about formulas and calculations and less about what they can or cannot actually afford to pay.

Through its “I.O. University” series, the Portland Press Herald has spotlighted situations where making decisions about higher education without adequate financial information results in unwelcome challenges for both students and their families. Clearly, earlier planning can go a long way when it comes to preparing for college costs.

How can families gain an upper hand in the financial aid “season” that is fast approaching, whether this year or in the next few years?

 First, focus on the bigger picture and place college costs in the context of your other important financial life decisions. As professionals who advise families from different perspectives on this issue, we believe that parents best serve their children and themselves by taking an integrated approach to their college search, including financial planning.

Focusing the college search on options that provide the right academic and social opportunities for the student, and that also represent reasonable choices in terms of likely out-of-pocket costs, enables families to prepare for the impact of both imminent college costs and retirement in the not-too-distant future.

Second, determine your parameters of college affordability by compiling key financial information. For example, what is your eligibility for federal financial assistance? Even if children are just entering high school, it is wise to become familiar with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the most common tool for calculating an expected family contribution to the cost of their child’s college education.

You can access the FAFSA4Caster tool at www. studentaid.ed.gov. Though there are exceptions, it is best to assume you will be paying at least your expected family contribution, if not more, for each year of college.

How “real” is your expected family contribution? Is it an amount you could reasonably pay out of cash flow and available resources? Determine your financial “line in the sand” for college costs and avoid the temptation to sacrifice your financial security or take on heavy financial burdens so your child won’t have to.

A search strategy built from the start around a realistic sense of what is affordable can potentially save Maine families thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket college costs or student-parent loan debt.

Third, understand how financial aid works differently at different colleges. Given the rapid escalation in the cost of college and competition for the “best” students, colleges are strategic and less uniform in how they allocate their institutional grant aid.

It is common practice for students whose profiles are at or near the upper end of a college’s applicant pool to receive the most generous financial assistance, regardless of their actual need for aid.

Knowing how your admission profile (GPA, course selection and rigor, trends and test scores) measures up against a college’s reported admission data is a good first step toward incorporating affordability into the search, along with your other important criteria. Learning more about your outlook in both the admissions and financial aid practices at your chosen colleges can help reduce stress and minimize unwanted surprises along the way.

Finally, view the college selection and financial aid process as a teaching and learning opportunity. Choosing a college represents an investment decision arguably equal, if not greater, in magnitude and complexity to buying a home. As one does when looking for a new home, structure the college search around what you can actually afford.

In addition, focus on the best fit for your son or daughter academically and socially. This integrated approach provides an immediate sense that success is possible, and it often leads to options where admission is more predictable as well. By involving your child in the cost-related elements of the decision-making process, you are helping impart important personal financial skills that will be priceless in the long run.