As high school seniors wait for college admissions decisions, parents await other equally important decisions: financial aid award letters. If you’re a parent, it may seem like there’s little to do until those fateful letters arrive, but you can take action now by preparing yourself on how to read financial aid award letters like a pro. Below are five things financial aid experts say you should be aware of before award letters arrive.

 1. Your Estimated Family Contribution

Your estimated family contribution (EFC) is based on the information submitted on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), and colleges use it to determine how much financial aid you will receive. You can find it on your Student Aid Report (SAR), which you should’ve received within three to five days of submitting the FAFSA online. If you don’t know yours, log in to the FAFSA® website or use this tool to get an estimate.

2. Your Actual Family Contribution

The EFC is a tool colleges use to determine your financial aid package, but it is not necessarily what you pay for college. If you haven’t already, now is the time to look at any savings and your budget, and set limits on what you’ll spend. Your student should also continue to search for scholarships since those are free money that don’t have to be paid back. When thinking about how much to borrow in student loans, “parents shouldn’t borrow more than their annual income. And if they’re retiring soon, they should cut that in half,” Paula Bishop, a college financial adviser in Seattle, suggests. “And a student shouldn’t take out more than their expected first-year salary.” Keep in mind, those numbers are for an entire college education, not just the first year.

3. Block Off Some Research Time

All award letters tell you scholarship, grant, work-study and federal student loan amounts. However, because there is no standard award letter template, it can be difficult to figure out what needs to be paid back and what doesn’t. Scholarships are usually merit-based and grants are typically need-based, but either way, they are free money that does not need to be repaid. Work-study may be listed on your award letter, but that number is a max they can earn and not a guarantee of funds. Barry Fox of Barry Fox College Finance in Merrick, New York, said where things can get more difficult to decipher is with student loans. For example, the Direct Plus Loan — a loan that’s taken out in a parent’s name — is sometimes referred to as PLUS, and the word loan may not even appear.

4. How Private Scholarships Can Affect Aid Packages

One thing that can surprise families is the impact private scholarships — money from organizations other than colleges — have on financial aid packages. Accepting this money effectively increases your EFC, potentially reducing your family’s eligibility for financial aid. “If a student has been awarded an outside scholarship, find out how the school will apply it,” Fox said. “It may reduce their aid.”

5. You Can Negotiate Your Financial Aid Offer

If there has been a change in your financial situation since filling out the FAFSA®, there are options to appeal your award letter. But if you’re disappointed by a financial aid package, you can negotiate. “Schools are under no obligation to change their financial award,” said Jim Slowik, a senior college funding consultant at My College Planning Team in Naperville, Illinois, but he finds that about half of the negotiations he’s seen will gain the family some additional aid. Because each school has an internal process for negotiating financial aid, Slowik recommends “[checking] with the individual school and [following] their protocol exactly.”

Waiting for award letters can feel overwhelming, but there are things you can do during this period of limbo. Learn everything you can before your award letters arrive so you and your student can compare your options and make the best decisions for your family.

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