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The Most Important Things You Need to Know About Financial Aid Award Letters

Your guide to breaking down the obscure numbers and statements.

A student covers the many aspects of the college financial aid award letter.
The Most Important Things You Need to Know About Financial Aid Award Letters
I find it ironic that each year, a substantial fraction of high school seniors are so concerned about getting into their dream universities, that finding ways to pay for the tuition somehow loses priority. However, as nearly any college graduate would tell you, debt is far from glamorous. Ensuring that you have a plan to pay for college before committing to one will save you from eons of worry and stress. Here are some of the most important things you need to know about financial aid award letters so you can better optimize your ability to pay and thrive. First, let’s cover some basics. A financial aid award letter’s primary purpose is to include the total amount of money a school is willing to give you to offset the costs of attending. These letters will often land in your inbox soon after you receive your admissions letter. If you do not receive a financial aid letter, it may be an indication that you did not fill out a FAFSA, CSS, or any other sort of financial aid application. If you find yourself in this situation, be sure to reach out to the financial aid office as soon as possible. While each college’s financial aid letter will look different, they tend to include three main components. The first of which is the cost of attending the university for one year. This sum of money includes everything from tuition and fees, to room and board to other extraneous costs such as books and transportation.

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The second factor that is often incorporated within these letters is the expected family contribution (EFC), which as the name unequivocally suggests, is the amount of money a student’s family is expected to contribute each year. The EFC is often used by universities to determine how much financial aid a student is eligible to receive. The lower your EFC, the more aid you are likely to receive from the college. Lastly, but perhaps the most anticipated element of the award letter, is the financial aid that the university is providing you with. This sum of money can come in many different forms including grants, loans, work-study programs, and scholarships. I have attempted to briefly summarize each of these below: 1) Grants tend to be based on your family’s income and do not need to be repaid. Students that absolutely need money to attend college are prioritized for grants (for good reason). 2) Loans are borrowed amounts of money that need to be repaid (often with interest). Loans can come from public sources (for example, federal student loans) or from private sources (such as borrowing money from banks). As a general rule, federal loans tend to be less expensive and more student-friendly than private loans due to their reduced (or complete lack of) interest rates. 3) Work-Study Programs allow students to work part-time while also attending school. Keep in mind that wages for work-study programs may vary depending on the skill level and commitment that the job requires. 4) Scholarships, similar to grants, do not need to be repaid. However, unlike grants, scholarships tend to be merit-based, which simply means that they take into account a student’s ability in certain arenas. For example, some scholarships consider a student’s academic record, while some focus on athletic ability, and still others place emphasis on applicants’ artistic talents. When a college offers a student a merit scholarship, it is often contingent upon certain criteria such as maintaining a predetermined, minimum GPA. Lastly, keep in mind that some scholarships are a one-time deal while others are awarded each semester or year that you are enrolled into the university. Students often feel as though the financial aid letter is absolute and irrefutable. However, applicants actually have an opportunity to appeal their financial offer. Students can choose to take this route for a variety of reasons including if their family’s financial circumstances have changed significantly since the last time they applied for aid, or if they simply feel that the university misjudged their financial situation. Another strategy students have within their arsenal is to give schools an opportunity to match other financial aid offers they have received. As an example, imagine that you are choosing between two schools and that the one you are leaning towards is giving you less financial aid than your other option. You can reach out to the financial aid office of your preferred school and ask them to consider matching the offer made by the other school. Be entirely genuine with your request, and inform your top choice that the cost of attending is the primary thing that is preventing you from promptly committing (needless to say, ensure that the statements you are making are in fact sincere and true). While it is true that students have an option to appeal their financial aid offers, it is equally possible that their appeal may be denied. Namely, applicants that appeal their offers later in the admissions timeline fall into the risk of the school notifying them that they had unfortunately depleted all the funds that were previously available. To avoid being thwarted by unforeseen obstacles such as this, it is crucial to continue applying for scholarships on your own. I can assure you from personal experience based on the research I have done this past year that there are scholarships for just about everything you can think of as long as you are determined enough to patiently look for them. Scholarships come in all kinds of shapes and forms. Some require you to write well thought-out essays while others merely request you to fill out a simple form. Some applications are carefully analyzed by the scholarship sponsors while others operate on a lottery system in which the winners are randomly selected. This, as you may have predicted, comes with its fair share of perks and drawbacks. While the extreme variety gives you a wide menu of scholarship opportunities, the range of choice can also paralyze applicants by concealing potential starting points. This leads me to a quick note for any non-high school senior reading this: you can apply to a majority of scholarships before you even set foot into your senior year. I highly recommend applying to scholarships throughout your academic career to minimize the stress and pressure that accompanies the final stretch of your senior year. The scholarship application season can, at times, instigate some déjà vu of the exhausting and tedious college application process. Despite everything you have on your to-do list, or perhaps because of it, remember to take some time to remind yourself that no admissions offer or scholarship denial letter can undermine just how much you have grown and the passions you have discovered along the way. And on that incredibly cheesy note, good luck!

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