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We know you’re busy, so we're here to take the guesswork out of financial aid, college applications, and how to survive college life.

After being accepted to a college and applying for financial aid to each specific institution, you will receive a financial aid letter in the mail and/or through email that will notify you of the amount of money you qualify for. Keep in mind: if you applied for financial aid from multiple colleges or academic institutions, you will receive an award letter from each school. Financial aid awards are based off the cost of attendance and amount of financial burden on the student, so each school will tend to offer you a different amount of loans, scholarships, and grants. Each financial aid package is meant to help fill in the gap between your ability to pay for school and the actual cost of attending. 

Included in the financial aid letter, there will be a number of things that you want to pay special attention to:

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The School’s Cost of Attendance (COA)

Included in this number will be everything from tuition, fees, room and board, and books, and will sometimes also include projected average costs of transportation, extracurricular activities, and other personal expenses. Make sure that your award letter itemizes each of these items so that you can compare each of the award letters as well as with your own estimates. When enrolling as a freshman, planning out a budget so that you don’t end up falling short before the semester or year is over will help to reduce the stress of going to school.

Estimated Family Contribution (EFC)

This number is the portion your family is expected to contribute and can vary depending on your family’s income. Speak with your parents about this to ensure everything lines up correctly.

Scholarships and Grants

There truly is so much financial aid out there for students, but often it takes a little extra legwork. Be sure to apply for as many grants and scholarships that you qualify for; speak with the school’s financial aid office and search online for aid money you may have missed, and do this every year you apply. And remember, just because you aren’t a straight A student doesn’t mean you won’t get a scholarship or especially a grant.

Loans

This one is important. This is the money that you will have to pay back, so you want to be sure that interest rates are low enough to be worth taking out a potentially high dollar loan. The average yearly cost of tuition is over $9,000 for in-state and out-of-state average tuition is nearly $23,000 a year. So, throughout the life of your loan, one percentage point in interest can add up to tens of thousands of dollars. Also, it will be important to consider how much of those loans are subsidized and how much are unsubsidized. Any loans that are unsubsidized you will have to pay interest starting with the day you take out the loan.

Again, speak with your parents and be sure to compare the financial aid packages side by side. While you may have your heart set on a school across the country, it just might not be financially responsible or worth it to attend. Remember, student loans don’t just go away and you will have to pay for them eventually. Don’t just sign an award letter without considering each of the pros and cons.

Also, if your financial situation has changed since you applied for aid or if you think something is wrong on your award letter, you can always appeal it. In many instances, you can fill out a Change in Income form if you or your parents lost a job, for example, to help readjust your award amount.