5 Tips to Appeal a Financial Aid Award

Students at desk appealing Financial Aid. Award

You were accepted into your dream school but you did not receive the big award you had been hoping for. Now what? Well, do not despair. If your circumstances have changed since you filled out the FAFSA and CSS PROFILE you should file an appeal.

Financial aid administrators are able to use “professional discretion” or “professional judgment” in considering special and unusual circumstances. Special circumstances might include higher than usual medical bills due to illness or hospitalization, a parent is laid off or dies, a divorce or a natural disaster. According to the Department of Education, “Professional judgment must be triggered by unusual circumstances that affect a student or the student’s family and that are not recognized in a standard treatment for calculating the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).”

While there are many factors used to calculate your EFC, your parent assets and income and your (the student’s) assets and income are two of the main ones. If anything has changed to drastically impact your family’s income or assets, you should appeal.

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Most colleges have a process for appealing a financial aid award. Check with the Financial Aid Administrator or the school’s website. Cornell University, for e.g., has specific forms required to appeal a financial aid award. Some other colleges might just need a letter with supporting documents. Even if a college has forms to complete, attaching a letter with a substantive and heartfelt appeal, if permitted, could do the trick.

Here are 5 tips to help you build a strong case for your appeal:

1. Document Your Special Circumstances

Outline what things have changed to affect your family’s financial status since you applied. Did a parent lose a job, become ill, get a divorce or take on responsibility for supporting an elderly family member? Providing documentation will help you build a stronger case and make it easier for the Financial Aid Administrator to use professional judgment.

2. Leverage other Offers

For merit aid, leverage other higher offers you have received from other colleges especially if it is from another college that competes with that particular school for the same pool of students. Express your gratitude for the offer of admissions and financial aid and indicate that they are your top choice, but an increased award would allow you to attend. If you received a higher financial aid offer from a college they consider their peer (or competitor for the same students), they might match it. If you are in the top 10-25% or even top 50% and/or have a special talent you might have more leverage since the school is also trying to get the best students to boost its academic profile in US News. The lower you fall in the applicant pool, the less leverage you have when it comes to merit aid.

3. List any new merit awards or academic improvement

While leveraging other offers could help, it does not hurt to also mention any new academic, leadership, athletic or other award you received since you applied to the college to let them know you are an even stronger candidate than when you originally applied. Remember, colleges are very interested in your achievement because if you look good, they look good.


4. File your appeal in a timely manner

If possible, don’t wait until it’s close to College Decision Day (May 1) to appeal your financial aid. Colleges will read right through this and see that they are probably part of your back-up plan. Of course, if your circumstances change close to May 1 then you will have no choice but to submit the appeal at that time. Keep in mind that funds are limited and other students will be appealing a financial aid award.

5. Follow Up

After filing a formal appeal, do follow up with a call or email to check on the status and learn when you can expect a response. When you receive a response, don’t forget to send them a thank you letter even if you did not get a higher dollar amount or the amount you were expecting.

Remember, some financial aid awards are only for one academic year and require an application every year, as is the case with federal student aid. In addition, there is no guarantee you will get the same amount in financial aid each year. If you are successful in your appeal and get a better financial aid package, do remember to ask your Financial Aid Administrator if any/all of the aid will be renewed automatically. Read the fine print and good luck on your appeal.