Tuition isn’t the only rapidly rising college expense. So is the money many families are shelling out to try to give their children a leg up in the admissions race.

Test-prep for college entrance exams can eat up hundreds to thousands of dollars. Parents are also paying for private college counselors and precollege summer programs that let teenagers load up on college credits, gain internship experience and do community service in underdeveloped countries, among other things.

More students are taking a blitzkrieg approach to applying to colleges as families fret about sinking admissions rates at many schools.

According to the most recent “State of College Admission” report from the National Association For College Admission Counseling (NACAC), 32% of fall 2013 freshmen submitted seven or more applications, compared with only 9% in 1990. It’s not unusual for students at affluent, competitive high schools to apply to a dozen or more schools.

Application fees—$41.51 on average, reports NACAC—can add up quickly. Nearly 40 schools charge $75 or more, according to data from U.S. News & World Report.

Annual sticker prices (tuition and fees plus room and board) are nearing $65,000 at the U.S.’s most expensive schools. During the 2014-15 school year, the most recent for College Board data, published rates averaged $18,943 for in-state public schools, $32,762 for out-of-state public schools and $42,419 for private schools.

Families that can’t afford the bells and whistles, and even those that can, should know there are more cost-effective ways to prepare for, apply to and attend college—and get the same results. But it requires homework, say experts.

Perry De Fontaine, a CPA, registered investment advisor and president and founder of College Insights, an independent college advisory firm based in Princeton, N.J., encourages families to be open to public and private schools. “Don’t just focus on sticker price,” he says. “Focus on true cost.”

Although families with tighter budgets often look exclusively at public schools, they could wind up costing more, he says, because they are less likely to award aid and may have lower retention and graduation rates. But a private school may not be worth its premium, he says, if it isn’t stronger in a student’s field of interest or doesn’t offer greater internship and job placement opportunities.

De Fontaine suggests looking at compilations of “best value” schools from U.S. News and other sources. Families then need to dig deeper to find the right match for a student’s needs and interests and their pocketbook, he says.

Don’t be fooled by college information sessions, which are often “dog and pony shows,” he says. A school may boast that its average financial aid package is $30,000, but parents need to ask about its financial aid policy—how it awards this money.

It could be “a need or bust school,” he says, meaning it meets 100% of demonstrated need but offers no other aid. Another school down the street may be generous with merit-based aid, essentially a tuition discount for high-achieving students.