4 Steps to Understanding and Comparing Financial Aid Offers

Students sitting on bench.

When I was in my last semester of high school, I checked my family’s mailbox just as much as I checked Snapchat and Instagram combined. It was the season of admissions decisions, and I was getting letters from all the colleges I’d applied to.

But once I’d gotten into several schools, my attention shifted to my e-mail inbox. I was waiting on information that was just as critical: my financial aid offer from each college. I knew that for me, the amount of financial aid I got from a school mattered just as much as the general admissions decision. I’d fallen in love with each of the schools I’d visited, and I knew I’d be happy anywhere. Basically, my choice was going to come down to the money.

Analyzing different aid packages can seem like way too much math for the end of your senior year—at least it did to me—but it’s important stuff. Check out my four steps to make this analysis simpler.


What to do once you get an aid offer

1. Make sure you know what you’re looking at.

The financial aid offer (sometimes called an award letter) typically comes in an e-mail from the college’s financial aid office. The offer includes the types and amounts of financial aid you’re eligible to receive from federal, state, private, and school sources. Be sure you understand what each type of aid is and whether it needs to be paid back. For example, when I got into UNC-Chapel Hill, my aid offer was a mix of scholarships, which I didn’t need to pay back, and private loans, which I did. My offer from Duke (booooo) had mainly the same stuff with some grant money mixed in.

Click to download PDF.

Click to download PDF.

Lucky for you, hundreds of colleges nationwide have signed on to present financial aid offers in a standardized format known as the Shopping Sheet. The Shopping Sheet is a standardized award letter template that makes it easy to compare financial aid offers from different schools. In addition to providing personalized information on financial aid and net costs, the Shopping Sheet also provides general information on the college, like graduation rate and loan default rate.

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