April Financial Aid Checklist for Seniors

It's decision time! Your financial aid award letters will usually arrive with your letters of acceptance, or soon thereafter. Even though you will be celebrating and contemplating your choices, you will also need to be focused and diligent about evaluating your financial aid offers. College advisor Alice Kleeman is back with advice for students and families  and answers for your questions during this important time.


  • You will often receive financial aid offers (also called "financial aid packages" or "financial aid award letters") with your admit letter or shortly thereafter.  Review these offers carefully. Ask questions at your College and Career Center or Guidance Office if you don't understand your letters.
  • Different colleges cost different amounts, present their costs in different ways, and offer different amounts of financial aid in different combinations. This can make it difficult to understand which combination of price and student aid award is best. Here are some tools for comparing financial aid awards:  

                        US Department of Education College Affordability and Transparency Center

                        College Board Big Future

                        College Admission Financial Aid Package Evaluator

                        Many states also provide a calculator for comparison so check your home state's website. Here is an example for New York State: HESC Financial Aid Award Packages Comparison Chart

  • Talk to a Financial Aid Administrator at the college of your choice if you have any problems. Be sure to ask for and note the name of the person to whom you speak so you can talk to the same person each time.
  • For more information about comparing financial aid awards, please see the two-part post from Ohio State's Executive Director of Financial Aid Diane Stemper here and here.
  • If you did not receive the aid award you need, ask yourself if there is some aspect of your financial situation you haven't yet shared with the financial office, such as a job loss or a large medical bill your family is still paying off. Call the financial aid office and ask to speak to someone about your award, explain your circumstances and ask if there are any additional resources the officer can recommend.
  • If your award at one college is significantly different from your award at another, you can always go to the aid office and ask if someone can walk you through the award so you are certain to understand each aspect of it.  That way you can carefully compare offers from other schools and understand why the offers might be different. But do not go into a financial aid office prepared to negotiate aid. Colleges have made a good-faith offer with your aid award and are not playing games with you, hiding funds until you negotiate for more! There are many reasons why financial-aid offers from different colleges might vary, so you cannot expect one college to match another's offer of aid. You can, however, expect any college's office of financial aid to help you understand the offer it has presented to you.
  • If you think you should have received an aid award, but have not, speak up! If you feel an error has been made, it's perfectly fine to ask for clarification about why you might have failed to qualify. If you believe the aid you're concerned about should have been part of your financial aid award from a college, check in with the office of financial aid. If you wonder why you might not have received a private scholarship, you are less likely to get a specific answer (and more likely to hear something like "We received so many applications from such highly qualified applicants that we were not able to award everyone we would have liked to award").
  • If you suddenly discover you need aid, but have not yet applied, apply! While you may have missed a deadline for state aid, you can still apply for federal aid—and some states have more than one deadline for aid. Many scholarship programs have late spring or even summer deadlines. Because financial aid is cyclical, you will want to be certain to hop on the financial-aid train on time during the next application cycle!
  • Respect the Universal Reply Date of May 1. This is the date by which you must notify four-year colleges that have admitted you whether you plan to attend or not. [NOTE: Many colleges, particularly large universities, have eliminated the response mechanism for saying “no, thank you.” They simply assume that if they do not receive a Statement of Intent to Register (SIR) or deposit, you will be going elsewhere.]
  • Once you have decided which college to attend, review that college's financial aid offer. You can accept or decline each item listed on the offer. For example, you can accept the grants but decline the loans if you can get a loan from your grandparents for less, or accept grants and loans but decline work-study.  Some colleges will ask you to formally accept the aid award. Be sure to follow the college's instructions and meet all deadlines.
  • Remember that you are required to alert the financial aid office at your college of any money you will receive, such as scholarships and awards, from private sources. (See more information about colleges' outside scholarship policies here.)  A private scholarship is one that comes from an organization or individual who seeks to reward students for any one of a number of qualities. Students might win scholarships from private sources for academic excellence, community service, scholar-athlete status, talent in the arts, character traits or personal qualities, or even unusual attributes. Racial or ethnic background and financial need may or may not be taken into account. Private donors are allowed to set any selection criteria they choose for scholarships. Some private scholarships are open to students from all over the country, while others might consider only local students or even sometimes students from a specific high school.

Congratulations! And good luck!


Alice Kleeman has served as the college advisor for 18 years in the College and Career Center of Menlo- Atherton High School, a public high school of 2,000 students in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also teaches each summer on the faculty of the College Board’s Summer Admission Institute for new admission officers.

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