Here’s how Samantha Shapiro, a recent graduate of a competitive liberal arts college, made her first-choice school affordable by both appealing and negotiating her financial aid package.

I don’t know anyone who was more excited or more prepared to go to college than I was. I started visiting schools my sophomore year of high school and knew exactly where I wanted to go by the middle of my junior year. This allowed me to be very clear on my first-choice school. I was ecstatic when I not only got in but also received a scholarship. However, the thrill did not last long. Two weeks after I received my acceptance letter, my father lost his job, and my family and I suddenly found ourselves living off a lot less.

My scholarship was for $10,000 per year and I was also offered a $5,500 Direct Unsubsidized Loan, but that was it. The total cost of school my freshman year was $52,000. We initially filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) when both my parents had incomes, and we did not qualify for [need-based] aid. Even before my dad was laid off, my parents planned to take a second mortgage on their home to offset the cost of school. Once he wasn’t working, that no longer seemed like a feasible option.

The first thing we did was contact the financial aid office and set up an appointment. Since the school was only about two hours away, my father went in person to meet with someone. They told him job loss qualified as a special circumstance and he could file an appeal, which was basically a formal letter that described our financial situation. In it, we explained he lost his job and that we were now living off less than half of what we were a few months ago. We got specific with numbers, like how much was saved, how much income we had each month and how much our expenses were. We also attached supporting documents such as bank statements, pay stubs from my mom’s job and a letter from my dad’s former employer that verified he no longer worked there. All in all, we said we could afford $12,000 for the year and asked for an additional $25,000 in aid. It took about two weeks to hear back, and we were offered an $8,000 grant and a $17,000 Direct PLUS Loan.

The financial aid office also suggested we contact the admissions office to see if I could negotiate more merit aid. This time I wrote the letter myself and included my most recent grades, along with two additional teacher recommendations. Fortunately that paid off, and I was able to get an additional $1,000.

While we didn’t get everything we hoped for, we got enough to allow me to attend my dream school that fall and fortunately the following year, my father was back at work. That did eventually mean less [need-based] aid as my family’s financial situation had improved. However, I was able to keep the increase in my [merit] scholarship for all four years. Yes, appealing and negotiating your financial aid is time-consuming and a little intimidating, but it was absolutely worth it for me.

FAFSA® is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.