This guest post originally appeared on Admitster.

Financial aid award letters, overflowing with crucial financial information you’ll receive from the schools that have accepted you, are the subject of today’s post. The letters will be full of juicy details, allowing you to compare the true cost of attending the various colleges that you’re considering for your undergraduate adventures.  OK, perhaps I erred in describing the letters as being full of “juicy details”. I admit that it may well be more accurate to describe the financial aid award letters as being full of “confusing specifics”, “befuddling facts”, or “mystifying particulars.” Why is it all so complicated? How can you make sense of your financial aid award letters?

Well, I want to share with you a gem of a YouTube video from U.S. News & World Report. I recommend that you watch the entire clip (click here to access it), but if you don’t have 15 minutes to spare at the moment, allow me to give you a quick rundown of the key points:

  • The basic components of a financial aid award letter are: 1) Grants and scholarships (the free money!) – know where they’re from and why they were awarded. 2) Work Study – this represents the most that a student can earn working on campus in a year. 3) Loans – look to see if they’re for the student or for the parents, and also be sure to understand their terms.
  • There are a number of important phrases that are commonly used in an award letter. Two examples are: 1) Cost of attendance – this is NOT the bill, but rather is an estimate of what the college thinks it will cost the student to attend for a given enrollment period. 2) Family contribution – this is also NOT a bill, but is how much parents could look to contribute to the overall cost.
  • Another thing that may be confusing is that some colleges package parent financing into the financial aid award – as a result, it may at first glance appear that the entire cost of attending is covered. However, upon closer inspection it may well be the case that it’s actually parent financing (sometimes called a Federal Direct Plus Loan).
  • Work study and loans help you to finance your undergraduate education, but they don’t change what you’re going to pay – they only have an impact on when you’re going to pay what you owe.
  • If you have more than one award letter and are trying to compare them, proceed with caution, as they may look very different from each other, making a side-by-side comparison challenging (i.e. apples to oranges). Here’s a useful tool for comparing aid awards at up to four different schools – click here!
  • You typically receive single year awards in these letters – for a family to predict what they’ll need to borrow over all four (or more) years, they should know what the criteria are for the renewal of scholarships and grants (if applicable).  Also, be sure to read the fine print for needs-based grants.
  • As ever, be sure to focus on the net price!

Sorting out the finances for college can seem confusing and overwhelming, but if you stay calm and arm yourself with the information you need to make the right monetary decisions given your personal situation, you’ll get through the process!

Authored by Admitster (Guest Author)

Admitster works to help level the playing field by guiding students and parents through the complex world of college admissions. Take advantage of Admitster's free online tools and affordable college advising, tutoring, and test prep services - own your journey to college!