How to Appeal Your Financial Aid Award

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: February 9, 2021
2_8_ Appeal Financial Aid Post (2)

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If you’re reading this post, it’s likely because you want to appeal your financial aid award. A few months ago, you filed the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA form, sponsored by the U.S. State Department of Education provided your family with an index called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This number tells colleges how much they believe you can afford to pay for college. With this information, colleges created a financial aid package. 

There are four types of financial aid your student will be offered:

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Loans
  • Work/Study

A financial aid package is the Cost of Attendance (e.g. tuition, room and board, fees, books, supplies, etc.) minus your financial responsibility. Ideally, it covers at least up to your EFC. But many times, the financial aid package leaves a gap. Gap is when the college does not meet your full financial need (COA – EFC).

When assessing your financial aid package, you should look for a college that comes as close to meeting your financial need as possible.

Here’s a scenario:

  • If your EFC is $20,000, 
  • The college’s COA is $40,000, and 
  • The college offers you a financial aid package of $20,000 — 
  • Then they met 100% of your financial need.

This is the best case scenario. But unfortunately, more schools don’t meet financial need than those who do meet need. And the majority of students will see packages that meet between 70-90% of their need, and they will need to decide if they should appeal.

As such, an important next step for you to appeal your financial aid award is to request the college review your financial aid file and reassess your family’s situation to see if you qualify for additional financial aid, in the form of merit scholarships, need-based grants, and federal grants, loans, and work-study.

How to appeal a financial aid award

To appeal your financial aid award, it starts with your student (not you as the parent) drafting a letter explaining why you are deserving of additional award money. The higher you rank in the incoming class or value you bring to the class in terms of diversity, for example, the more leverage you’ll have in the negotiation.

Here’s what you should say in your letter:

  • Gratitude for admissions and the financial aid offer. 
  • Excitement you have about the prospect of attending the school
  • How hard you’ve worked to get admitted and the contributions you intend to make
  • Reason you are requesting additional support
  • Specifics about the amount and kind of support you are requesting
  • Information about offers by other schools to use as a bargaining chip
  • Insight into special circumstances that may explain financial hardships that your family is having that support the need for additional aid
girl student writing her college essay

Why you should appeal

Writing an appeal letter is an effective way to get additional financial aid. Most colleges offer their worst package first. Appealing shows your interest in the school among all your offers and intent to commit with the right aid package.

Two years ago, I had a student who was accepted into both Ithaca College and Bard College. His top choice was Ithaca. But Bard offered him more financial aid. We sent a letter to Ithaca, outlining the financial aid assistance provided by Bard. Within a week, Ithaca’s financial aid office issued a new award letter that topped Bard’s award. Immediately, the student accepted Ithaca’s offer.

Before you start a letter, do your research. You should be familiar with the college’s aid sources and their limits. For instance:

  • The Pell Grant’s maximum award amount is $6,345 for 2020-2021.
  • The maximum Federal Direct Loan amount is $5,500 as an incoming student.

It is worth time researching the scholarships and grant norms for the school. For example, if your award letter to Marist College shows a Presidential Scholarship for $12,500. But let’s say that after conducting research on sites like Quora.com you learn that other students have received awards up to $25,000, then perhaps it’s worth asking Marist for the full award. For better outcomes on merit scholarships, it’s worth updating the college on your credentials that show you’re worth the increased amount.

Another tip is that if your award shows a grant, then you qualify for need-based aid. So you can definitely ask the school to increase the amount offered to better meet your need. 

How colleges consider special circumstances

Family financial data entered into financial aid forms, both the FAFSA and CSS Profile, the form required by 400 colleges and universities in the United States,  lag behind by two years. Like for many families, by the time colleges assess your financial information, your current financial circumstances may have changed. If you have experienced job loss, reduced hours, divorce,, or major medical expenses, you should consider appealing your financial aid letter and requesting a professional judgement review. A professional judgement review is when a financial aid administrator can consider unusual circumstances that impact your federal financial aid eligibility and use their discretion to make adjustments to your award package.

If you do have special circumstances, you’d refer to them in your letter and gather documentation to support your case.

Conclusions + Next Steps

Here are some final thoughts as you prepare to appeal your financial aid award to increase your financial aid offer.

  • Have your student write the letter. It means a lot more coming from the person who hopes to attend the college.
  • Allow time ahead of May 1 to appeal your package. It may take up to one month to hear back from the College. And they may ask for additional information. Or you may be selected for federal verification, a process for schools to review the accuracy of your FAFSA and financial information reported to the federal government.
  • You are approved. Once the college financial aid office makes a decision, you can expect a letter explaining their decision, along with an updated award letter (if a change has been made in the student’s favor).
  • You are not approved. If you are not offered additional financial, you can appeal again. Or you can consider other options, such as applying for private scholarships, enrolling in the school’s tuition payment plan, or applying for low-interest private student loans.

If you need help with writing a compelling financial aid appeal letter, you can download samples to see what has worked for a few of my clients.

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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.