At each stage of the college process, it can feel like there’s something new to learn.

You’ve written essays, completed applications, filled out the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and applied for scholarships.

Now, you know where you’ve been accepted—congrats!—and it’s time to figure out what you will need to pay. To help do that, you need to carefully review your award letters. This can be confusing because it’s not exactly a streamlined process. “Despite government efforts, every school has a different award letter format,” says Joe Orsolini, former chapter president of the Independent Accountants Association of Illinois and cofounder of College Aid Planners. In other words, award letters are written differently, and comparing them to see how much aid each school is offering isn’t a simple task. In fact, it’s really easy to miss key details. 

Here are some common award letter mistakes to avoid so you can make the most informed college choice.

1. Not Adding Up the True Cost of Attendance

“One thing we hear is students not factoring in all the different elements of cost of attendance and what they’re going to owe the schools,” says Megan Coval, VP of Policy & Federal Relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “There’s such a focus on tuition going up, but there are books and supplies, transportation and room and board to factor in.” And it’s not always intuitive. For example, a school that’s driving distance from home could wind up costing you more in transportation costs than a school that’s a flight away because of parking fees. The schools you’re evaluating should have much of this information on their financial aid websites, but if you’re unsure of how to organize your budget, pick up the phone or send an email to ask. Without a clear understanding of what each school will cost you, you can’t make an effective comparison.

Don’t get so caught up with which school is offering the biggest scholarship as it may also have the highest sticker price.

Joe Orsolini

2. Not Comparing Apples to Apples

Because there’s not a standardized award letter format, it’s easy to miscalculate or not compare the right things to each other. “Don’t get so caught up with which school is offering the biggest scholarship as it may also have the highest sticker price,” Orsolini points out. “You want to focus on the net cost or the amount actually paid out of pocket after aid.” Need help figuring out these calculations? Use an Award Letter Comparison Tool to help you compare several offers side by side to see what each school’s net price is.

3. Borrowing All the Money Offered to You

You don’t have to borrow the total federal student loan amount that was offered to you in your award letter. Just because it’s included in the award letter doesn’t mean you must accept it. While you’ll want to take all the free money—like scholarships and grants—you should be more careful when it comes to accepting the loans. These must be paid back and most of the time with interest, so it’s important to only borrow what you need. Coval says, “You can go back to the school and say, ‘I actually don’t need the $4,000; instead I’m going to take just $2,000.’” It’s totally okay—and better for you in the long run—to borrow less.

4. Not Understanding Scholarship Requirements

If part of your award letter includes scholarships that come with certain requirements, make sure you’re crystal clear on what’s expected of you. “If the requirement is a 3.0 GPA, then a 2.95 GPA will not cut it,” says Orsolini. “You will lose the scholarship for the following year.” Merit-based awards can be great, but just make sure you understand the risks involved if you don’t keep up your end of the deal.

5. Misunderstanding How Work-Study Works

“A common mistake is thinking that work-study, if included, comes off the tuition bill,” says Orsolini. “Many schools list it that way, but in reality the funds are paid directly to the student.” Work-study jobs are not guaranteed, so students must put in the effort to find one if they want to rely on this money. If they find a job, students are paid directly and can choose whether to put work-study paychecks toward school bills.

6. Not Appealing, If You Can

“If, between the time you filled out the FAFSA and received your award letter, you had a major change in your family’s circumstances, like a parent losing a job or sudden illness, you should reach out to the financial aid office to explain your situation,” says Coval, referring to the appeal process. “You may be eligible for more financial aid if what you filled out on the FAFSA is no longer reflective of your family’s ability to pay.” It’s important to be realistic. Appeals like this are only honored when the changes to your family circumstances are major and documented. “There are very strict rules and regulations behind [appeals],” Coval adds.

7. Not Negotiating

Even if the appeal process isn’t available to you, remember that you still have bargaining power. If the financial aid package from one of your prospective schools is not enough for you to feasibly afford attendance, then you may consider seeing if the school is willing to increase their offer. Orsolini encourages students that have been admitted to schools that compete for similar student populations to pick up the phone and call or send an email to the more expensive school’s financial aid office. He recommends being specific. “A conversation with school A that school B is going to cost $4,000 less may get you further than simply saying, ‘we can’t afford this.’ You can’t bluff this and have to be ready to send them the competing award letter to back it up,” he warns. “This generally works with private colleges more than with state universities.”

8. Not Asking for Help

Since award letters can be confusing, don’t hesitate to ask for help. “Students and families should feel comfortable reaching out to the schools,” says Coval. You can contact them and say, “‘I got this award notification, and I’m a little unclear. Can you help me understand? Here’s what I think I would owe after grants, scholarships, and federal loans. Am I understanding this correctly?’” The financial aid office is there to help. Take advantage of their resources and get all your questions answered so you have clarity. 

Even though award letters may cause some initial confusion, schools don’t want award letters to be a barrier to entry. Now that you’re armed with a little more information and have a tool to compare them, you can make sense of the offers and make a confident decision.  

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

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