Understanding Your Financial Aid Offer, and What To Do If It’s Not What You Expected
April 22, 2022

Okay, you put in the work on your application, filled out the FAFSA and your CSS profile, you’ve received your admissions package, and you’re into the university of your dreams. Congratulations! But now the real work begins: how to afford the next four years of college. 

Receiving your financial aid offer letter can be overwhelming at first so it’s important to take  concrete steps at this stage to lower your future debt and meet all of your financial needs for the next four years. 

This starts with understanding your offer letter. One study by New America, a nonpartisan think tank, and uAspire, a Boston-based college affordability nonprofit, showed that there are over 100 different ways your aid might be presented. Luckily, we’ve got you covered with the information you need to understand your award letter fully, from the different types of aid you can receive to strategies for comparing aid offers from all your admissions packages.

With all the information in hand, you might find that your aid package is less than you’d hoped for, or perhaps your financial situation has recently changed.

At this point, strongly consider writing an appeal letter. An appeal letter is an ask to the school’s financial aid office to revise—and increase—your aid offer. But writing a good appeal letter is difficult, so we’ve compiled clear guidelines to make your letter as effective as possible.

Understand WHEN your award letter has the most impact.

As soon as possible. Especially if there was a loss in income, family member, or unexpected medical expense, it is imperative that you file an appeal as soon as you can. “As soon as you get the layoff notice,” Mark Kantrowitz, a Pittsburgh-based financial aid expert from savingsfromcollege.com states, “file an appeal.” 

Further, because appeal letters are reviewed as they come in and funding dries up over time, it’s important to let the admissions office know of your intent to appeal as quickly as possible. Many parents need to simply ask to start the ball rolling. 

Often, we have seen the most successful appeals happen because the student reaches out as early as possible, then follows up by the parent to both the college admissions officer and the financial aid office. 

OK. WHAT exactly should I ask for? 

A recent Wall Street Journal article advises that parents should distinguish between need and merit based aid. Boston University for example, will only consider need-based aid but will not review merit-based requests. 

This is also a good time to gather all competing offers from similarly-tiered colleges. Note that Cornell University will not consider that $80,000 financial aid award from Pace University, but will certainly review a better scholarship (aka. merit) offer from Stanford University, often meeting or exceeding competitor awards. Same would be true for mid-tier colleges like Willamette University and Whitman College who are both located in the Northwest corridor and compete for students with similar qualifications. 

HOW can I submit the appeal letter? 

University of South Carolina, for example, asks students to submit the appeal letter via their student portal before a specific deadline of Nov.15th. Wake Forest requests that all financial aid letter be in writing and sent via regular ol snail mail. Whereas Northeastern specifically states on their website that their financial award packages are “not negotiable.” Regardless, once you have determined how and to whom to send the appeal letter to, go ahead and submit it. The worst they can do is say “no.” 

Just how MUCH should you ask for? 

It’s important to think about how much additional aid you’re requesting.. As a rule of thumb, asking for an increase of $5000 or less will result in a much more favorable result since colleges have more leeway at this level.  And unless there has been extenuating circumstances or a matching offer from a similarly-tiered college, it’s best to clearly outline why a specific amount is important for you to make the decision to attend that university.

Write a clear, well-composed letter.

Your letter should be polite and professional. Realize you are now working with your school of choice to revise your aid offer. Open and close your letter with a thank you. Be sure to include a clear ask. You should state early-on that you are hoping to increase your award, and you should have a clear reason why this is necessary. Be as specific as possible. Include an exact amount that would make a difference to you. Attach a competing offer from another school, if applicable. Check out CollegeBoard’s resources for comparing your financial aid packages so you can leverage your multiple offers to your advantage.

Follow up. 

Give the financial office a week, and if you don’t hear back from them, follow up with a short, polite email with your contact information.  

Seek professional GUIDANCE. 

Pittsburgh Prep’s Official Financial Aid Partner, College Aid Pro, offers free access to their award winning software, MyCAP, as well as access to their expert certified financial advisors. As a Pittsburgh Prep family member, you can also take advantage of 15% off all their premium services. Follow this link to access and enter code PITTSBURGH15

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