One question that I really struggled with during my time in school is, what should I buy before I get out of school in order to cash in on the student discount? Obviously, there are as many answers to that question as there are people asking it, but I will offer some general guidelines that I hope will prove helpful to people. The three basic questions to ask before you buy a tool while in school are:
1. Will this tool be essential to my future job functions?
2. Will buying a quality tool add value by increased function or a better warranty?
3. Is there a substantial discount for buying now?
If the answer to any of the above questions is "no", or "I don't know", you should not be buying the tool until you have more information.
I have mentioned it before, but I feel it bears repeating, DO YOUR RESEARCH. It will save you a TON of money, and unless you have a much better gig than I do, that is a big consideration. Let's be honest, if you had more money than time you wouldn't be reading some random blog online.
You first need to RESEARCH the kind of tools that you are going to need. The best resource while you are in school is your teachers. Ask them who the local employers are, and what kind of work they do. Some shops are more sheet metal focused, while others may be strictly engine shops. Those two jobs will require very different sets of tools. Try to find out what your prospective employers focus on, especially the ones that you think you would like to work for. Ask your teachers what tools they recommend, and what a basic tool set should look like at your prospective employer. Many larger employers (which are typical landing spots for fresh A & P's) have recommended or required tool lists that are available online or for the asking. Try to find lists from employers, not schools.
The second step is to RESEARCH what kinds of tools from that list you really ought to have quality, and what you can get away with buying from Harbor Freight or Sears. Remember, the only advantage to buying tools while you are still in school is the discount for buying quality. The most common mistake that I see made is that people rush out and buy a giant tool set from one company. They start out way in debt and/or wind up replacing some of the inferior tools they had purchased. Once you work in the field you will realize that no single company makes the best of every single tool. Anyone who only buys one tool brand has either too much money on their hands or not enough common sense. I respect the "buy American" sentiment, but I personally support companies that make a good tool for a fair price. Mac makes the best 1/4" ratchet in the world, in my opinion. Snap-On makes the best angle wrenches by far and away. Irwin makes the best channel locks. I have written elsewhere about what tools should be bought quality in "What Tool Truck Tools are Worth the Money?", and I wrote about the ones that don't in "Tools that aircraft mechanics most commonly overpay for". If you buy one big tool set you are investing a lot of money in tools that won't necessarily help you make more money. If you build a toolset slowly while you are working, it will allow you to find out what is the best and most efficient way to use your money. The second common mistake that people make with school discounts is purchasing giant toolboxes right out of the gate before they are making money in the field. I addressed that issue in "What toolbox should I buy?"
The third step is to RESEARCH what tools are the best. One good example is the Snap-On four way wrench set. I borrowed this set I don't know how many times, and I would say that a majority of aircraft mechanics have one (seven of eight in my shop). It is $255 on the Snap-On website, but only $133 through the Snap-On tech program. Another good example would be the Mac MR4C. I have sung its praises elsewhere, but with a student discount price of $26, it is priced competitively with even the Craftsman cheapo ratchets. My third endorsement is the Mac BWS7B ratcheting screwdriver set. These things are awesome for tight spots. They are fine toothed and the action is tight, so it is a lot less frustrating than the Craftsman cheapo ones. Highly recommend this set.
The fourth step is to RESEARCH how good the discount is. Mac offers a straight-up 50% discount on almost everything. Matco has a similar discount. Snap-On varies depending on the tool. Some are near 50% off, while others are nearer to 10% off. Some tools can be purchased on Ebay, Craiglist, or at Pawn shops with significant savings, especially big ticket items like torque wrenches. Most of the time, usage does not affect functionality (screwdrivers and wire cutters are the exceptions that come to mind) or warranty, so buying used is a good option.
Ultimately, I would advise people against buying a lot of tools just because they have the school discount. Buy good quality tools that have a wide range of functionality, like ratchets. Other than that, I would advise most people to wait until they are in the field. I cannot stress enough how important it is to buy based on the best possible information.