If you are worried about the cost of college, you have plenty of company. College tuition hikes have been outpacing inflation for years, and nearly three quarters of the class off 2012 graduated with student loans.
But if you think the big financial drain starts when your child lands on campus, think again. Just getting applications out the door can cost a family thousands of dollars.
"People can end up spending a lot more than a year of college costs in all the application processes and the test prep and all the various essay consultants," said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors, a website that helps families plan for college.
The first step for many students preparing for college comes in the form of a standardized test. Just about every college applicant takes the SAT, ACT or both. And some require SAT subject tests, which assess knowledge of a specific subject area.
The basic SAT costs $52.50, and the fee for the ACT test with the writing component is $54.50. Basic SAT subject tests cost $26. Registering late costs extra, as does changing where a student plans to take the test. And many students take these tests multiple times.
Families stressed about these standardized tests may enlist the services of a private test prep service or a tutor. Private SAT tutors regularly charge well over $100 an hour for their services, and test prep companies are in the same range. At Kaplan, for example, a student in northern New Jersey can sign up for the "SAT Express" tutoring package at $2,199 for 12 hours. The Total Advantage Tutoring package, offering 48 hours of assistance, is $6,499.
Then there are college visits. The visits themselves are free, and some colleges even waive their application fees for students who come to take a look. But the cost of getting to a campus can vary widely, from the price of subway fare to a tank of gas, or even plane tickets for two or three family members and a hotel stay.
A number of college tour companies offer several days of bus trips to campuses in a given region. These enable students and parents to see several schools at once, but the trips do not come cheap. An October Northeast College Tour offered by college-visits.com costs more than $2,000.
The costs rise further when it is time to fill out applications. Many families hire admissions coaches who often charge thousands of dollars to help with application deadlines and essays.
Even without the coaches, application fees can add up. The price of applying averages $42 at the 86 percent of colleges that charge a fee.
If students applied to the same number of colleges they did 15 years ago, that might not be a big deal. But innovations like the Common Application, now accepted by more than 500 colleges and universities, and state systems that let students apply to as many state schools as they want with a single form, make multiple applications easier.
Add in families' worries about the competition for college admission, and it becomes clear why applications are on the rise. Nearly one-third of all college applicants applied to seven or more schools in 2013, up from 11 percent in 1998, according to UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute.
How can students and their families keep these costs in check?
Most of it boils down to preparation and the confidence that students can do this themselves, experts say.
Take testing fees. These are fixed unless your income is low enough to qualify you for a waiver. But there are alternatives to pricey courses and private tutors. The College Board itself offers some test prep on its website, and there are a variety of test prep books with practice tests that retail for under $40.
Kantrowitz suggests an even less-expensive way to prepare for the verbal portion of the standardized tests.
"If you start soon enough, the very best way of preparing yourself for the SAT is to read the front section of a daily newspaper every day, or read the whole Sunday paper every week, for years," he said. "If you are trying to cram with the books, you might get your score up 50 points or so. If you do it this way, you can get 100 points or so."
As for college visits, students can plan college trips together to save on hotel costs, for example. And if they do their homework before getting on the road, they may be able to limit the number of in-person visits. Sites like www.youvisit.com provide virtual tours, which may help students streamline their lists.
Private college coaches are appealing, not least because they let parents feel that they have done everything possible to help their child. But be careful about what the coach is doing. If the coach has a big hand in your child's essays—or worse, writes them—admissions officers are trained to spot professional essays.
Read MoreHow to make those college essays POP
"I understand that people are desperate to get into the college of their choice," Kantrowitz said. "But if you have to fake it to get in, are you really going to be able to make it at that school?"
Kantrowitz has seen a lot when it comes to spending on college testing and applications. But at the end of the day, he said, he is skeptical about the value of the pricey outside help. Visits are useful, and standardized tests and applications are necessary. But about the bells and whistles, he said, "I don't think it's really all that necessary."