Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letter

A financial aid award letter explains the total amount of monetary assistance a school will offer you. You’ll start to receive these letters shortly after you get your college acceptance letters. Before you start comparing your offers, here’s a quick look at financial aid award letters.

Key Takeaways

  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form you need to fill out to get any federal financial aid.
  • Financial aid award letters detail how much financial assistance a school offers you.
  • There are four main types of financial aid: grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and loans.

What Is Financial Aid?

The average cost of tuition and fees among ranked universities for the 2020-2021 school year was $41,411 at private colleges, $11,171 for in-state students at public colleges, and $26,809 for out-of-state students at state schools. For many families, these costs are a problem.

Financial aid is money that helps you pay for college or a career school. It comes in the form of grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and loans.


If you’re starting to think about college, you’ve probably come across the acronym FAFSA. It stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid—a form you need to fill out to get any federal financial aid. Many states and colleges also use the FAFSA to determine if you’ll get financial aid—and if so, how much.

How to Apply for Financial Aid

To be considered for federal financial aid, you must submit a completed FAFSA. Keep in mind that most states, colleges, and universities also use the FAFSA to award other types of financial aid. That means you may need a FAFSA not just for federal aid but also for state- and college-sponsored financial aid.

There are three ways to fill out and submit the FAFSA:

  1. Online from the U.S. Department of Education
  2. With the myStudentAid app (available on iTunes and Google Play)
  3. By printing and mailing the FAFSA to the address on the form

In addition to filling out the form, you need to provide signatures from yourself and a parent (if applicable). You can do this electronically, by printing and mailing a signature page, or by signing the paper form if you mail in your application.

When you fill out the FAFSA, you’ll answer questions about your family’s finances, including information from tax returns. As the name suggests, the FAFSA is free. That’s a good thing because you need to submit a new FAFSA for each academic year you are in school. For example, if you plan to attend four years of college, you’ll need to fill out four FAFSAs—one for each year.

When Is FAFSA Due?

For the 2021-2022 school year, you can file a FAFSA anytime from Oct. 1, 2020, to June 30, 2022. You must submit your application before midnight Central Time on the final date. Note that some college and state grant programs have their own FAFSA deadline, which can be as early as Feb. 1, 2021. 

Some states and colleges award their financial aid funds on a first-come, first-served basis until all funds have been awarded. To avoid missing out on any opportunities, it’s a good idea to submit your FAFSA as soon as possible after Oct. 1 each year that you plan to apply for financial aid. 

According to Edvisors.com, students who file the FAFSA early receive, on average, twice as much grant funding as students who file later.

How Does Financial Aid Work?

After you submit your FAFSA—and depending on whether you qualify for aid based on the information you provide—you’ll receive a financial aid award letter from each school you list on it. Each letter explains the federal and nonfederal financial aid options the school is offering you. You’re not obligated to accept the aid that is offered in your award package. You can compare your offers from different schools before you decide.

Whether you accept or decline an offer, you need to respond to the school to let it know your decision. Be sure to check each school’s deadline, so you reply on time.

What Is a Financial Aid Award Letter?

If you submitted a FAFSA and were approved for financial aid, each school that accepted you will send you a financial aid award letter. While there’s no standard format for these letters, each explains how much financial assistance the school is offering you. You’ll receive the letter electronically or through snail mail (or both).

In general, each financial aid award letter explains:

  • The cost of attendance (COA). Your COA is an estimate of what you will pay for one year of school, including tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and transportation.
  • Your expected family contribution (EFC). The EFC is a number the school uses to determine how much financial aid you’re eligible for. In general, the lower the EFC, the more funding you can get. Note that this is not the amount of money your family is required to pay.
  • Details (and dollar amounts). These pertain to whatever grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and loans the school is offering you.

Types of Financial Aid

Your financial aid award letters may contain different types of financial aid offers. While each school may have its own nomenclature, there are four general types of aid:

  • Grants. You don’t have to repay grants. Most grants are need-based, meaning they’re typically awarded based on your family’s financial situation.
  • Scholarships. Like grants, you don’t have to repay scholarships. Most scholarships are merit-based, which means they’re based on your talents and interests (e.g., academic, athletic, artistic).
  • Work-Study Jobs. Work-study programs help you earn money to pay for college. You’ll work part time on or off campus while enrolled as a student. You’ll earn at least minimum wage, but you may earn more, depending on the job and your qualifications.
  • Loans. A loan is money that you borrow and pay back with interest. Loans can come from the federal government or from private sources, such as banks, credit unions, and state-based organizations. Federal student loans are generally less expensive than private student loans. 

Without a doubt, grants and scholarships are the best type of aid to receive because you don’t have to pay them back. When you compare your options, be sure to pay attention to the type of aid each school is offering—not just the amount—and whether you’ll be on the hook for any student loans.

When Will I Get My Financial Aid Award Letter?

Schools typically send out financial aid award letters close to when they send their acceptance letters. If you have questions about the timing, reach out to the school’s financial aid office.

How to Compare Financial Aid Awards

For many students, financial aid award letters help to narrow down college choices. To find out which school will be the most affordable, you can compare costs with a bit of number crunching. To do so, follow these steps for each award package you receive:

  1. Calculate the total COA. This may be included in your financial aid award letter. Otherwise, total the tuition and fees, room and board, and estimated books, supplies, transportation, and personal expenses.
  2. Subtract the total amount of money you’ll get for free. This includes the Federal Pell Grant, state and institutional grants, scholarships, and military education benefits.
  3. Subtract the total amount of money you’ll earn through work-study programs.
  4. Subtract the money you plan to borrow from various loans.
  5. The amount left over is the amount you’ll need to come up with to attend that school. You can use savings, other scholarships, gifts from friends and family, and private loans to fill the gap.

Then compare the results for all the schools you’re considering. Whenever possible, take advantage of the free aid and work-study programs first, and take out loans only if needed.

If you do need a loan to help cover costs, keep in mind that federal student loans are generally more flexible and less expensive than private loans. Remember that a bigger financial aid package consisting primarily of loans isn’t necessarily better than a smaller total award offering more scholarships and grants. 

Financial Aid Appeal Letter

If you didn’t get the amount of aid you anticipated from a school, you might want to send it a financial aid appeal letter, also known as Professional Judgement. Situations in which an appeal letter may be appropriate include:

  • Your family finances have changed since you submitted your FAFSA.
  • You made a mistake on your FAFSA that could impact your award.
  • You received a better offer from another school that you want this school to match.

If you decide to appeal, it’s best to do so as soon as possible, before the school’s financial aid funds run out. Start by contacting the school to inquire about its aid award appeals process. No matter what that process is, follow the directions, be specific, and always be nice.

The Bottom Line

If you apply for financial aid, you’ll start receiving financial aid award letters shortly after your acceptance letters start to show up. The amount of financial aid that schools offer can play a big role in where you’ll spend your college years.

Still, it’s also important to consider other factors, such as each school’s location, campus life, academic programs, and graduation rate. You’ll be spending four or more years of your life in college, so take the time now to choose the school that will work best for you.

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