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Understanding and Reviewing Financial Aid Letters

If you were accepted to multiple universities (congratulations!), you likely felt a great deal of excitement when you received your letters. But then your excitement was probably quickly replaced with confusion, and maybe even anxiety, when you tried to make sense of your financial aid letters.

After all, universities don’t have a standard way of presenting the information, and it can be hard to see what offer is best.

The good news is that it doesn’t need to be confusing.

Elements of financial aid letters

The first step to evaluating financial aid letters is to understand the elements they include. Each letter will include:

  • Cost of attendance (an estimate of tuition and fees, room and board, books, and other supplies)
  • Money that you do not have to repay (e.g., grants or scholarships)
  • Money that you need to repay (e.g., federal loans)
  • Work-study programs funded by the federal government and/or the university

Factors to consider when reviewing financial aid letters

Contact the university’s financial aid officer listed in your offer letter to gather more information about your offer. It’s a good idea to do this by email so you have a written record of the conversation. You’ll want to know the following information:

Additional costs

Some universities will only list tuition in the “cost of attendance,” but remember that you’ll have to cover housing, food, transportation, books, supplies, additional fees, and other living expenses. In addition, if the school is far away from home, you may want to consider the costs to fly home during school breaks.

Estimated tuition cost increases

Ask them how much tuition and other fees have increased recently and if they can give you an idea of how likely they are to increase over the coming years. You might also be able to find some of this information on your own online.

The average graduation rate at the university

This should give you a sense of how long it may take you to earn your degree. For example, if the average graduation rate for students is five years, you might want to calculate your tuition costs over that period. This is a safer approach.

Scholarship terms

If the school is offering you scholarships, learn as much as possible about what those include. For example:

  • Will the scholarship renew every year you’re in school?
  • Will it renew at the same amount?
  • What are your responsibilities to continue to receive the scholarship (i.e., maintaining certain academic performance)?

Although it’s not fun, think about worst-case scenarios when you’re considering your options. For example, if you have an athletic scholarship and you get injured and can’t play, how will you continue to pay for college?

Loan terms

Your financial aid offer letter may include federal student loans. You may choose to accept or decline these. Loan terms vary significantly, so before you accept any, be sure you understand all the terms. For example:

  • What is the interest rate?
  • Are there any additional fees aside from the interest rate?
  • How soon will I need to start payments?
  • When will I start accruing interest?
  • How long do I have to repay the loan?
  • How much will I need to pay each month once I start repaying the loan?

Work-study program terms

If work-study opportunities are included in your financial aid offer, ask the admissions counselor:

  • What jobs are available to you?
  • What’s involved with getting accepted to their work-study program?
  • How much can you earn?
  • What are the minimum and maximum number of hours a week you can work?
  • Are the jobs on or off campus?

Additional questions

In addition, you’ll want to know:

  • Might the amount of my award increase if some other students don’t accept their awards?
  • What do I need to do to receive the award?
  • What do I need to do to continue to receive award funds in subsequent years?

What to do next with financial aid letters

  • Now that you know how much aid you’ll receive, you can compare the offers from each school against each other by plugging the numbers from each letter into a financial aid calculator.
  • If you or your family had a change in your financial circumstances, or if you’ve received a more attractive financial aid offer elsewhere, it can’t hurt to request a modification to the financial aid award you received from your top choice school. Visit the university’s website to find out their procedure for appealing a financial aid award.

Tip: If you have the opportunity to discuss this with a financial aid officer, politely let them know why you’re asking for the change. If you’re asking for additional funds because you got a better offer elsewhere, you may be asked to share that letter.

  • Find out the deadline and instructions for accepting the financial aid award. Notify the university ahead of time, and be sure to let the other universities you were accepted to as well.
  • Complete any necessary forms, such as loan applications.


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