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What's in a financial aid award letter?

After you submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you’ll receive a financial aid award letter in the mail from each school to which you’ve been accepted. Your letters will outline how much the school will cost and what kind of financial aid package you'll receive for one year. All financial aid award letters don’t look the same, but they contain the same general information.

Use a spreadsheet to compare your financial aid award letters

Once you’ve figured out what’s in your award letters, you can create a spreadsheet to compare your offers side by side and weigh the pros and cons. This will help you figure out how much you’ll pay for each college.

For each school, you can then calculate your funding gap, or the remaining amount you’ll have to pay, by taking the school’s COA and subtracting both your EFC and the financial aid package. You’ll have to pay the remainder from other sources, such as savings or a private student loan.

Note that for some families, your funding gap might include part or all of your EFC.

When you’re comparing schools’ offers, be sure to consider other factors, like location, quality of academic programs, and graduation rate.

How to read your financial aid award letters

When will you receive financial aid award letters

Most colleges send out financial aid award letters around the same time as admission offer letters. However, the timing can vary depending on the date you submitted your FAFSA, the number of FAFSAs the college received, etc.

If you have questions about when you should expect to receive your award letter, you can ask the college.

Accepting or declining financial aid from your award letters

You don’t have to accept all the financial aid from your award letter. You can choose to decline loans, work-study, etc. We recommend that you consider free money (scholarships and grants) first, then earned money (work-study), and lastly borrowed money (federal student loans).

Once you decide what financial aid you’re going to accept, you’ll need to respond to the school’s award letter within the deadline set by the school either online or by returning a signed form.

Financial aid award letter tips

  • Look beyond the total dollar amount of the award; note how much is “free money” and how much consists of loans. It may make sense to accept a smaller award that offers more scholarships and grants than a larger award that consists mainly of loans.
  • Your award letter covers one year only; you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA and apply for financial aid every year you’re in school.
  • As you compare your award letters, make sure to take your time. You’re investing years of your life in college, so invest time now to compare each offer carefully.

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 This information was gathered on 9/14/16 from