They’ve waited. They’ve watched the mail for weeks. Finally, the letter arrived: Students are getting notice that they’ve been accepted to the school of their dreams! But after the moment of excitement and congratulations wears off , the realization sets in: it’s going to cost money to go to school.
Even if a family has prepared for years, saving money, investing in 529 plans and being on top of completing their student’s FAFSA, now is a crucial time to pay attention to information from schools and have a clear understanding of the financial aid award letter.
Financial aid award letters are sent to students in the weeks after receiving their acceptance letter to a school and reflects the cost of attendance as well as the financial options available to families to help pay for their student’s education. As the letters state, a student’s place in the schools incoming class cannot be reserved until a deposit is received based on the financial award letter. But families should take the time to understand their award letter before submitting any form of deposit, as these deposits are not refundable if a student decides not to attend a particular school.
Currently, there is no standard format for schools to report the financial aid being offered to a student. So families should use these tips to better understand what is being offered and make a smart comparison between what different schools will cost. The school with the lowest tuition fees might not always be the best financial choice thanks to financial aid awards. Knowing how to read the financial aid award letter can make all the difference.
- Find “free money”
Many schools offer students institutional scholarships or grants. These types of funding can be seen as “free money” because students and families don’t have to repay this money after graduation. Make sure to look for words such as “scholarship” or “grant” in the name of the financial award. These awards are often given to students based on the information in the Student Aid Report created when completing the FAFSA, based on income or family responsibility. Families may miss these awards because they do not technically apply for them separately.
- Consider loans and work study options separately
To help show families how they can meet the cost of attendance at their school, award letters will also include options that require repayable loans or other options that require further action by the student, such as work study programs. Since there is no standard format for separating these options from other “free money,” families need to recognize that any loans taken out, be they private or federal Stafford loans, will require repayment by either the student or parent (depending on the loan) after graduation. This is not funds being offered by the school, but money that will require repayment.
- Know the difference between “direct” and “indirect” costs.
Attending college features a variety of costs, but not all of them will necessarily be covered the financial aid offered in the award letter. The “cost of attendance” on a financial aid award letter applies to direct school costs, such as tuition, room and board. Indirect costs, such as books for classes or travel to and from school are not considered in an award letter. These costs are those that the student and family will have to bear personally.
- Determine if awards are for one year or more.
Many families fall into the trap of thinking that the financial award letter reflects the costs and awards for all four years of school when, in reality, the letter reflects the cost for one year of school. While many of the loans listed on an award letter will be available to students each year, many of the grants or scholarships listed may require a new application each year or, in some cases, are only available for one year. Determining which of these awards are renewable, or the length of the award, can help families avoid an unpleasant surprise.
- Make sure the award letter is final.
In some cases, an award letter might not reflect the final amount of aid being offered to a student. If any section of the letter uses words such as “estimated,” “tentative” or “pending,” the school may not have all the information from a student’s FAFSA or other document needed to make a final determination of aid. Once this information is provided, it may have an impact on the amount of aid that the student is finally offered.
Understanding the financial award letter that students receive can lead to some difficult decisions about where a student should go to school. By making the best effort to compare award letters from all schools that have accepted a student, families can make an informed choice of which school fits best with a student’s goals while creating a financial plan that will avoid any bad surprises or unexpected debt down the road.
As students completing their college applications look for every edge possible to catch an admissions officer’s eye, it’s important to remember that those things that make students stand out are more basic than a fancy essay or overly-packed resume.
Here are some tips for students to keep in mind if they’re applying now or are planning for their college applications in the years ahead:
1. Get Involved, But From The Heart
Community involvement and extracurricular activities go a long way toward showing admissions officers not only who a student is, but what they want to be. However, throwing together a bunch of activities in an attempt to impress colleges can work against a student (and probably make that student miserable to boot). Students who follow their interests, help others and find activities in which they just have fun will show colleges what a student really has to offer. Even better, starting early (think middle school) and keeping involved through high school will show that a student isn’t just getting involved with extracurriculars to pad a resume.
2. Test Scores Matter.
“No, duh!” says pretty much every Senior and their family. But, hey, we said these were simple and this one’s DEFINITELY worth a reminder. Don’t take the ACT lightly. Spend the time to study and prepare for the test, including reviewing test-taking strategies. Taking the test multiple times will also give students a chance to work through the nerves of the big day and gain experience that will serve them on subsequent sittings. Don’t worry. Schools are going to take your best individual scores. Admissions officers hate taking tests, too.
3. Take Challenging Classes, Get Good Grades
Again, not a news flash here: grades are important to show a school that students know what they’re doing in the classroom. The thing worth remembering, though, is that schools pay attention to difficulty of the class as well as the grade. Does a student’s school have Advanced Placement (AP) or Honors classes? If so, a B in an AP class looks just as good as an A in a less challenging class, with the added bonus that the student is achieving success in a more difficult (often college-level) course.
4. Know About The School
Sure, it would be pretty foolish to think that a student doesn’t know the school for which they’re actually applying. There’s a difference, though, between knowing and KNOWING. Students who research and visit colleges before applying gives them the advantage of determining whether or not a school is the right fit for their future, which might encourage them to take advantage of early admission application and scholarship options. Schools tend to appreciate the commitment and dedication that early application shows and could be the difference that gets a student into that target school. Attend college fairs, either in person or online (if a school offers them) to learn more and get familiar with admissions officers and other aspects of the application process. Plus, there’s no reason students need to wait until their junior year to visit schools. Getting students to college visits as early as 8th grade, like those schools in Iowa College Aid’s GEAR UP Iowa program do, not only gives them a taste of what a college is like but can give them a motivational goal that lasts all the way through high school.
5. Take Advantage A Secret Weapon: Summer
Out of school? There are many ways to take advantage of vacation to get ready for college. From high-school student programs and classes at a student’s target school to volunteer and internship opportunities to a summertime job, colleges love students who make good use of their free time. Yes, there’ll still be time to hang out by the pool with friends (adults have to make time, might as well start learning now!). But more importantly, when it comes time to reviewing similar student applications, a college admissions officer might end up giving the nod to a student who spent their summer teaching at their church’s day camp instead of playing Xbox One all day. Students who take the extra step will be the ones who succeed.
December and the start of the new year is crunch time for students filling out college applications. Some students who submitted for a variety of early admission programs have received word while others are hoping to find replies from regular admission programs in the coming weeks.
To better understand the “why” of college admissions, it’s important to appreciate the “how” used by admissions officers to determine which students are the best prospective fit for their incoming class. While many of the factors are obvious, other elements about a student and their application that families might fear as negatives can actually be positives.
Many of the leading criteria for a student application are the ones that most people immediately consider when targeting a prospective school: academic criteria, talent and community involvement are all major parts of an application.
Academics are the best predictor of a student’s academic success at a highly selective college, including grades and standardized test scores. The competitiveness of a student’s high school letters of recommendation from the guidance counselor and the teachers who know the student the best are also considered other highly significant academic factors.
Having a particular talent also can be a key way to individualize a student application. Borin points out in the article that when a college has received almost 20,000 or more applicants, a talented oboist is only competing against other talented oboists with similar grades and standardized test scores. The most competitive colleges are always seeking to form a well-rounded class of talented students. Having a particular talent can help set a student apart.
Other facts that impact an application are ones that might not immediately jump into a family’s mind. For example, while some families might consider geography a negative influence on applications, it can actually work to their benefit. If a student is applying to a highly competitive school, but is from a state that has fewer applicants, they could have an edge as, once again, the most competitive schools try to maintain diversity in their student body not only in race and socioeconomic status, but in geographical representation as well.
Many other factors can influence a student’s chances with an admissions officer. The all-important essay and the willingness to show a commitment to the school through such things as early-decision applications are major factors, but being a legacy at a school (having relatives that attended the same school) can apply at any college, and not just if a student comes from a wealthy family.
The number of things that can influence an admissions officer can seem overwhelming. But, in the end, the best way to make an impact is for students to not only be unique, but authentic. Being able to show a student who can balance academics with extracurricular activities and involvement in their community is appealing to any admissions officer. These students are the ones who often show the passion and drive that will make them a success both in the classroom and in life. And that is appealing to any school.
Verification is the process by which colleges review student financial aid applications for accuracy where the U.S. Department of Education identifies some FAFSA applications for colleges to review. In addition, colleges may review additional applications based on answers provided to certain FAFSA questions.
Roughly one-third of all FAFSAs filed are selected for verification and the process must be completed before financial aid can be awarded. If you are selected for verification, you can expect the following:
- When you receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) after completing the FAFSA, you will see a comment stating “Your FAFSA has been selected for a review process called verification. Your school has the authority to collect certain financial documents from you”.
- Your college’s financial aid office will contact you and inform you of documents you need to submit and any additional forms you need to complete.
- Your college may be required to verify the following data elements:
- Adjusted gross income
- Taxes paid
- Income earned from work (for non-tax-filers)
- Untaxed portions of IRA distributions or pensions
- IRA deductions and payments
- Tax exempt interest income
- Education credits
- Household size
- Number in college
- Receipt of food stamps/SNAP benefit
- Child support paid
- High school completion status
- Any other inconsistent or conflicting information.
- To verify the elements above, the college may ask for documents which may include, but are not limited to:
- Signed copies of the prior year tax transcripts for parent and student (if the student is dependent) or Federal IRS Data Retrieval.
- W-2s showing wages, 1099s and supporting schedules.
- Statement of child support paid, documentation that child support payments were made, and/or copy of the separation agreement or divorce decree that shows the amount of child support to be provided.
- Verification of net worth.
- Documentation of food stamps/SNAP benefit.
- Copy of the applicant’s high school diploma, final official high school transcript that shows the date when the diploma was awarded, GED certificate/transcript, state certificate or transcript received after passing a state-authorized exam (HiSET, TASC or other state-authorized exam) or a copy of the “secondary school leaving certificate” (or other similar document) for students who completed high school in a foreign country.
The best action you can take to reduce the likelihood of being selected for verification is to use the IRS data retrieval tool to automatically populate your (and if you are a dependent student, your parents’) tax information directly from the IRS into your FAFSA. When you use the IRS data retrieval tool, the tax information is considered to be already verified so you will not have to submit documentation.
If you are selected for verification, ensure that you respond to all requests from your college or university. If you do not submit documentation on time your financial aid may arrive after late fees have already been accessed to your account.
College Application Month focuses on encouraging students to take the first step toward their future by completing their college application. But for many students and families the process of what makes a good application can seem a mystery.
Once students have found a school that seems a good match, completing the application and essay that goes with it can be a stressful process that, when done well, can help a student stand out from the pack. But how to do that? Drake University professor Jeff Inman serves as an interviewer and application reviewer for some of the school’s most prestigious scholarships, but even he admits that the upcoming application process his 15-year-old son will be undertaking in a few short years can be daunting.
To better help students and families gain focus on the process, he offers some advice on what makes a student’s college application stand out:
While I am always impressed with the resumes of the applying students, many of who are so busy I always wonder if they have to go without sleep to get everything done, it’s the essay that really solidifies the standouts for me. Those students who don’t just answer the question, but tell a story, really catch my eye. They don’t just talk about a fictional character they relate to or a quote they are inspired by. They find a moment in their life, an epiphany they had, or a failure they learned from and relate it to the question. To me, that shows they not only understand the essence of the question but also can make the kind of connections college demands of them. That said, typos undermine everything.
As with other educators, Inman also thinks that students who limit their college search to just one application are putting themselves at a disadvantage.
There are benefits from filling out multiple applications. There are lots of amazing schools out there where students will have a great experience, learn amazing things, and grow as people. I might be in the minority here, but I don’t feel there is one perfect school for any student. So apply to the schools you feel comfortable at, provide you the opportunities and experiences you want, and work for your family.
October is National College Application Month and Iowa is joining in the celebration with the annual Iowa College Application Campaign. Both programs aim to encourage and empower students to take the time to complete at least one application to a college or university during the regular school day.
For many students, especially first-generation students, filling out college applications during school allows them to get answers on related questions that they might not be able to find on their own. In honor of the Iowa College Application Campaign, we’re talking with representatives from high schools, colleges and even families who have recently gone through the college application process with their student to share their advice for those students and families completing college applications for the first time.
Greg Fisher, Principal and Athletic Director at Belmond-Klemme High School in Belmond, IA, suggests that before completing any applications that students research and target those schools that will best meet their needs. “College fit” describes that connection between student and school that can make a significant difference in whether a student succeeds or transfers to another school (or worse, drops out of college altogether).
Fisher discusses what he tells his students when they consider college applications:
When discussing college applications with students, I feel students need to do a thorough job of researching institutions of interest to them. I talk with them about determining if the institutions offer specific academic programs in which they have a strong interest. I ask the students to spend time looking for social aspects that will allow excellent opportunities for them to enjoy the campus and or college life.
I want the students to choose several schools, which are high on their lists and make out applications to those institutions. With the competition to get accepted into colleges, or acceptance into specific college programs, and with the awarding of scholarships at a highly competitive level for today’s high school students, it is important that a student give themselves options as they proceed through the application process. For a student to limit themself to a single school/program could result in the student scrambling late in the process if their original plan doesn’t work out.
As larger numbers of students apply to college and colleges compete for quality students who are dedicated to their school, colleges and universities have expanded the application options available to students in order to not only manage applicant pools but also increase the number of candidates that they consider “high-quality.” When considering the college application process, it’s important for families to understand each type of admission program and what those programs require.
Colleges that offer “early action” application do so to give families a quick response to those who submit on or before their early deadline (typically early November). Early Action admission decisions are non-binding, which means that students do not have to promise to attend if accepted. They just hear back sooner. Some universities offer “Restricted Early Action,” which works much like Early Action, but limits the number of EA applications a student can submit to other schools. Colleges do this because they are looking for students who are committed to them instead of just applying early to find out sooner. While families can benefit from the quick response of applying “early action” they face an smaller applicant pool that will usually have strong candidates and a possibly more selective admissions process.
Where many early action applications require little commitment, early decision applications are more serious. Student should only apply early decision to a college if they are certain that it is the college they wish to attend. Students accepted on early decision are required to attend the college at which they were applied and accepted, as well as withdraw all other applications.
Some colleges also offer an “ED II,” which allows students extra time to apply, allowing for more research, and application preparation. ED II applications often have deadlines that are the same the regular application deadline, but receive an earlier decision, usually in early February.
For a student with a clear vision of where they want to go to school, early decision applications offer a great advantage. Not only will they be informed of a decision earlier, but they also show the admissions office that they are a student dedicated to attending their school. If they are accepted, the student has the rest of their senior year to enjoy (early decision applicants usually hear back in December). If they are deferred or rejected, there is still plenty of time to regroup and apply to other colleges.
However, students that want to compare financial aid packages may want to hold off from early decision applications and the locked-in commitment that comes with them. Being able to look at different schools and compare costs can often show a student that their dream school might not be the best long-term decision, financially.
Regular application deadlines are later than early action or early decision applications and is the time when the majority of students will submit their applications.
Having a set timeline for applications helps students take more time to reflect on their goals, visit colleges, research and narrow down a list of schools that are the best fit for their needs. Students are not limited to the number of schools to which they apply, though each school will require an application processing fee when submitting an application. Applying by regular deadlines, allows students the luxury of comparing financial aid awards and admission offers without any restrictions that might come with early applications before choosing the college that is a perfect fit and meets his financial need.
Colleges with rolling admissions offer important options and opportunities that regular deadlines do not. Rolling admissions colleges will accept and examine applications as they are sent in, instead of waiting to judge all applications at the same time. This admissions option can be great for late admissions, or for finding out early whether or not a student is accepted.