Understanding And Comparing Financial Aid Award Letters

We’re very close to May 1st (National Decision Day) and thousands of students are trying to decide what college they will attend in the fall. One of the most important factors in choosing a college in this late stage of the decision process is cost. But, do you know how to read the financial aid award letters you’ve received?

One of the biggest mistakes that students and their families make when reviewing financial aid award letters is that they assume that the award letter with the biggest “award” total is the best. This is not always the case.

The main reason it is so difficult to compare financial aid award letters is because colleges are not required to use a standardized form. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education asked colleges and university to use a “shopping sheet,” but it is not required at this time. Until all colleges use a standardized form, it won’t be easy to compare financial aid offers.

I will help you decipher how to read those award letters so you can figure out what college is giving you the best deal. Keep in mind that the review process can take a while, especially if you need to do some research on your own – and more than likely, you will need to because not all colleges will provide all of the information you need.

As you go through the steps, I recommend creating a spreadsheet so that you can compare everything side-by-side.

Step 1: Figure out the Cost of Attendance.
Cost of attendance includes:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Housing and meals
  • Books and supplies*
  • Transportation*
  • Other educational costs**

*Transportation, books and supplies are not paid directly to the school. These figures are provided to give students an estimate of how much they will pay while attending college for the academic year.
**This will vary from each school depending on other things the college may require.

Not all of the award letters will include the cost of attendance. Students may have to go to college websites or contact the school directly to get this information.

Some things to keep in mind about cost of attendance:

  • Cost at many colleges will go up over the years. Some might have increases every year. Although the colleges might not have the figures for each year, it doesn’t hurt to ask about cost increases.
  • Although all colleges give estimates for the cost of books, the amount will be different for each student and can change each semester or quarter depending on the classes the student is taking.
  • There may be added costs after students register for classes that are not included in the quoted tuition and fees. For example, courses that require labs usually have extra fees not included in the quoted tuition and fees cost.

Step 2: Calculate “free money.”
Free money is all of the grants and scholarships that students do not need to pay back.

Things to keep in mind about free money:

  • Find out if the scholarships and grants are renewable all four years. Sometimes colleges will add one-time scholarships to incoming student’s financial aid award letters to encourage students to choose them over other colleges.
  • If the scholarship is renewable, find out what you must do to renew it all four years. Will you be able to keep up the requirements to keep the scholarship?
  • As tuition goes up, will scholarships amounts increase or remain the same? This is a question to ask the financial aid department at each school.

Cost of Attendance – Free Money = Total YOU Will Pay (somehow)

The college with the smallest “Total YOU Will Pay” is the college that will cost you the least, at least the first year. I mention the first year because multiple things can change from year-to-year as I discussed above.

Step 3: Were you offered work-study?
Work-study is another option that does not need to be repaid. However, as the title suggests, students have to work for the money. Work-study wages are usually given to the student in the form of a check, just like a regular job. Most work-study jobs will be on campus, but there may be off-campus positions also available.

Questions to ask about work-study:

  • Is the work-study job guaranteed?
  • Will students be assigned a work-study job, or will they have to apply for the work-study position?

Step 4: What loans were offered?
Many financial aid award letters will include loans. These loans will need to be paid back at some point. There are multiple loans that could be added on the award letter:

  • Federal Subsidized Loan – Student does not pay on the loan until the student has been out of full-time education for six months. During the time the student is in school, interest WILL NOT accrue.
  • Federal Unsubsidized Loan – Student does not pay on the loan until the student has been out of full-time education for six months. During the time the student is in school, interest is accruing on the loan.
  • Federal Perkins Loan – Students do not pay on the loan until student has been out of full-time education for ten months. During the time the student is in school, interest WILL NOT accrue.
  • Parent PLUS Loan – This loan is offered to the parents of the students. Although this loan is included on the financial aid award letter, parents will need to show they do not have adverse credit history. Parents will set-up a payment plan.

Cost of Attendance – Free Money – Work Study – Loans =
Amount you must pay out of pocket

The amount that the student has to pay out of pocket is usually paid at the beginning of each semester. Many colleges will allow students to start a payment plan. Typically, if the student has a payment plan, the balance for the term should be paid by the end of the term.

Comparing the Offers
The most important numbers to pay attention to when comparing the offers is the cost of attendance and the free money (scholarships and grants). When you subtract the free money from the cost of attendance, the difference is what you will ultimately have to pay one way or another to attend the college.

Choosing the college that you will attend in the future should not be solely based on cost. However, we all know and understand it is a huge factor. Hopefully the explanation you’ve found here makes it easier to compare the financial aid award letters that you have received from the colleges!

Building Your College List

Starting to build your college list can be very confusing. How do you know what colleges should go on the list? How many colleges should be on your list? Many students will create a list of colleges based on their name recognition. I highly discourage this because although the college name may be recognizable, it may not be a good fit for you.

So, how do you compile a good college list for you? I’ve come up with a list of things to do that will help you compile a college list that is just for you.

1.Get to know yourself.

That’s right, you need to know what you’re looking for in a college. You need to think about what you want in a college. Some key factors to consider include:

What locations are you willing to consider? Are you open to anywhere in the country? Or, are there only specific states that you’d consider? Or, do you only want to be a certain amount of miles from your home?

Location Type
Do you want a college that is in an urban, suburban or rural setting?

What majors are you considering? If you don’t know exactly what you want to do, are their subjects that you lean towards? If there are multiple areas of interest, I encourage students to find colleges that offer all of the areas you are interested in studying.

Extracurricular Activities
Are there specific extracurricular activities that are important to you and you want to participate in at college?

Do you want to be a college athlete and compete competitively for the college? What division do you want to consider? NCAA Division 1, Division 2, or Division 3? What about NAIA? If you don’t want to participate competitively, do you want to play in a specific intramural sport?

Religiously Affiliated
Do you want to attend a religiously affiliated college? Or, do you want to stay away from religiously affiliated colleges? Or, you don’t mind either way?

Student Population Size
Do you want to go to a college that is the size of your high school? Or, do you want to attend a college that is the size of a city? Or, somewhere in the middle?

Take time and think about your preferences. College is at least four years of your life and you want to make sure that you make the right choice the first time around.

2. Compiling the BIG List.

After you get to know yourself and what you’re looking for in a college, you can start doing your initial research. This list can be quite large depending on your preferences, and that is okay. There are a few good tools when creating the first draft of your list:

College Counselors

Talk to your high school guidance counselor and/or an independent college counselor. College counselors have a lot of knowledge about colleges and can provide recommendations.

College Search Websites

There are many websites available that allow you to plug in your preferences and then you will get a list of colleges that meet your criteria.

3. Research

Now that you have your list, start researching the colleges on your list. As you start researching, you’ll find things that make you like the colleges more. And, sometimes, you’ll find things that make you dislike the college. Take notes and keep editing your college list as you discover more information.

  • Review college websites.
  • Sign up to receive more information from the colleges.
  • Attend college fairs and talk to admissions representatives from the colleges on your list.
  • Attend the college presentations of the colleges on your list.
  • Contact the Admissions Representatives from the colleges and ask questions.
  • Visit college campuses – this will be a very important step because I recommend that students follows their gut feeling when on the campus. Sometimes you’ll love the campus, and other times, it just won’t feel right. Follow these feelings.
  • Talk to current students about their thoughts on the colleges. This can happen on college visits. You can also contact the Admissions Office to get you in touch with a student or follow the college on Facebook or Twitter and find current students there. Currents students won’t be selling the college like someone in Admissions will be doing. Current students will tell you the truth – good and bad – about the college.
  • Review the cost of attendance at each college, as well as the net price calculator. The price tag for a college can seem very high.  However, don’t rule out a school at first because of the price.  There is a lot of financial aid available.  I encourage you to fill out the net price calculator for many of the colleges you are considering.  After providing academic and financial information, the net price calculator at each school should be able to give you estimates of the financial aid you would receive if you attending that particular college.

4. Keep Reviewing and Changing Your List

As you learn more and more about colleges on your list, make changes to your list until you can narrow it down to approximately six to ten colleges. These will be the colleges that you will apply for admission. I recommend that students have a few types of colleges on their list:

  • 1 Reach School – A reach school is one that you have a chance of being admitted, but something in your profile might be a bit off of the colleges averages, such as test scores. You don’t have to apply to a reach school, but if there is one that you really like, go for it.
  • At Least 4 Match Schools – A match school is a college that you are pretty likely to be admitted.
  • At least 1 Safety School – A safety school is a college that you will almost certainly be admitted. Safety schools are important because college admissions is something that can change from year-to-year and can be very subjective. The safety school should be one that you would consider. Don’t just pick any safety school when it comes time to applying just because college counselors recommend it. Really look into the safety schools to make sure it is one that you would enjoy.

Remember, your list is going to continue changing, and that is okay. You want to make sure that you thoroughly research all of the colleges on your list because you want to find the right fit for you. Remember: what might be a perfect fit for your best friend, may not be a good fit for you. Therefore, do your research – you won’t regret it!

If you have any questions about building a college list, please contact me. I would be happy to hear from you!

Questions to Ask At College Fairs

One of the first steps in the college admissions process is attending the college fair. Many colleges can seem cool and interesting, but not all of them will be for you. The college fair is a great opportunity to start making your interest list and/or taking colleges off your list. It’s a lot like window shopping – no commitments, just learning more and figuring out what you want (or don’t want).

Some college fairs will have a few hundred colleges attending. This, itself, can be very intimidating. But, preparing before the fair can take some of the intimidation factor away. After you’ve figured out what colleges you will talk to, what will you say or ask?

Before attending any fair, write down some questions that you want to ask the college representatives. Ask questions that are important to you. Below is a sample list of questions you can ask the college representatives to learn more about the college.

First, things first, make a good first impression.  Extend your hand to the college representative and introduce yourself.

  1. What makes your college unique? This will be the representative’s opportunity to tell you what makes the college special. It also tells you what the college values. Sometimes, also hidden in the message, they will tell you why they think their college is better than a competitor.
  2. Please tell me a little about the ______ major. This is your opportunity to ask about the major or majors you are interested in studying in college. They will probably tell you what makes the program unique, opportunities within the major (internships, research, etc.) and what graduates are doing now. If they don’t tell you these things, you can ask.
    • If you’re undecided on a major, ask the representative if you can apply undeclared and what services they have to help students choose a major.
  3. How many students return after the first year? The answer to this question will give you a glimpse into how satisfied current students are at the college. If the percent is low, ask why students are leaving.
  4. How would you describe the student body? This will tell you what the college atmosphere might feel like if you were on campus. This question is especially important when deciding if the college should stay on your list or not. If you are looking for a very lively campus and they tell you it’s quiet, it might not be the place for you.
  5. What is the surrounding community like? The representative will probably tell you about the things to do around the campus, as well how the college fits in with the city/town.
  6. Can you tell me about campus safety? By law, each university has to provide crime information on their websites. The representative might tell you specific statistics, or they might tell you the specific campus safety features the college offers, such as emergency phones, campus shuttles, escorts, etc.
  7. What are you looking for in an applicant? The representative will probably tell you the requirements for admission, as well as some things that might make your application stand out.
  8. How do you award scholarships and financial aid? Again, they will probably tell you the requirements to apply for financial aid, as well as information about institutional scholarships and how to become eligible for the scholarships.

The above are questions that most students should ask when talking to a college representative. After that, you should ask questions about things that are important to you. This can include information about a specific extracurricular activity, study abroad, fitness center on campus, etc. Ask your questions. Remember, you are the shopper and need to have your questions answered. This is your opportunity to ask your questions to a person face-to-face.

Lastly, get the business card of the Admission Counselor that works with students where you live. Keep in touch and ask questions as you have them about the college. Not only will you be getting your questions answered by a person, you’ll continue a good rapport with someone that will probably be making the decision on your application. This, in the long run, can help when they make a decision on your application.

Have fun at the college fair. I hope that the above questions can make the college fair feel a little less intimidating for you!


Photo Credit for Above Photo: “College Fair 48” by COD Newsroom licensed by CC BY 2.0 | Texted added to original

California State University, Monterey Bay

Orientation MapOrientation Map

On a quick weekend getaway with my family, I decided to stop by the California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) campus. I had never visited this campus before, so it was a must see.

Campus QuadCampus Quad

CSUMB is located in the city of Seaside, California. The campus is approximately ten minutes North of Monterey – the city where many people might think it is located. It is also located approximately one hour South of San Jose and two hours South of San Francisco. The campus is just minutes away from the beach and the students on campus take advantage of this – while there, I noticed a few students drying out their wetsuits from the windows of the dorm rooms.

Visual & Public Art Visual and Public Art Buildings

The CSUMB campus is very unique. The school sits on a former Army base named Fort Ord. The campus has a unique blend of new and old. There are classes in the old airplane hangars and barracks, but there are new buildings on campus as well. Many of the residence halls are old office buildings from the base. In addition to being a unique fact, the rooms in the residence halls are much bigger than what might be found at other universities. The old buildings that are being used by the university have been updated. However, there are many unused buildings on campus and in the area that look dilapidated. The university will continue to make changes to the campus, so students that attend the university will be sure to witness changes throughout their time as a student.

Surrounding Area Reminders of the Old Army Base

The school was founded in 1994, making it one of the youngest CSU campuses. The school is also one of the smaller CSU schools. With just under 6,000 students, the school has the feel that one might find on a small, private university. This makes the campus conducive to quiet studying. There are clubs, activities and sporting events on campus, but nothing too big. I found that this is one of the complaints of students. However, again, this can be used as an advantage if you’re looking for a quiet university (for studying) with the potential of building meaningful friendships because “there’s not much to do here,” as one student told me.

Tanimura & Antle Family Memorial LibraryTanimura & Antle Family Memorial Library

The surrounding community and area is great. The one plus that all of the students I spoke to said was the beaches. The school is literally within walking distance of the Pacific Ocean. Other activities students mentioned were the two California Missions within driving distances and the many hiking trails. The students did say that most things off campus close by ten, but if you’re looking for a more lively area, Cannery Row in Monterey is only a ten-minute drive away. Just off campus is The Dunes Shopping Center. The center has Target, Kohls, Best Buy, REI, Michael’s, Old Navy and Bed Bath & Beyond. There are plans to build up this area and add a movie theatre and restaurants, but no date of completion has been given.

SunsetSunset at the beach near campus

The university currently offers 23 majors. The most popular majors are Business, Psychology and Kinesiology. The university calls itself a residential college. With 85% of first year students living on campus, that is quite a lot, especially for a public university. And, because CSUMB is a state school, students will enjoy in-state tuition. In addition, parking on campus is very cheap. To park on campus for an academic year, it is only $144. Although this might sound like a lot coming from high school, this amount is small compared to other public institutions.

I think California State University, Monterey Bay would be a good fit for students that are looking for a small school where they can make a name for themselves. Because the university is small, students will get to know many of their professors and other students. This school is also good for a student that wants to be focused on their studies because of the small amount of campus activities available. This is also a great place for students that love the beach and the outdoors because of it’s closeness to the ocean

If you’re interested in California State University, Monterey Bay, find out more information and sign up for a campus visit with he CSUMB Admissions Office.

For all of the photos of CSU Monterey Bay, visit Flickr. You’ll be able to find descriptions of all of the photos.

What NOT To Do At The College Fair

Attending a college fair is an important part of the college admissions process. The college fair is a great opportunity to jump-start your college research. It might be your first opportunity to talk to someone that is affiliated with the colleges you are interested in attending. And, it might open your eyes to other colleges you weren’t even thinking about researching.

Did you know that the impression that you make at the college fair could follow you through the college admissions process? Many colleges keep notes on their applicants. With the acceptance rates going lower and lower at colleges, it is important to make yourself stand out positively to the colleges. This includes making a good impression at the college fair.

As a former Admissions Counselor and Admissions Director, I’ve attended hundreds of fairs. I know what will and WILL NOT impress the person on the other side of the table.

Here is a list of things NOT to do at a college fair:

  • Don’t dress inappropriately. You don’t have to dress up in a suit and tie or a business suit. You can come to the fair in casual clothing like what you wear to school. But…
    • Don’t wear clothing that is too revealing.
    • Don’t wear clothing that has words or pictures that could offend someone. Wearing your favorite sports team, or even your favorite college isn’t bad; however, don’t wear something with curse words or inappropriate phrases or pictures.
  • Don’t disrespect the person behind the table.
    • Even if it is a college you’re not interested in attending, your actions could reach the college representatives at the colleges you are interested in attending. Many college representatives know each other and talk. You see, the college representatives were probably at the same college fair the previous night and they’re all going to another college fair the next night. They are probably friends, hang out outside of the college fairs and talk.
    • If the person behind the table is “just” an alumni representative or current student, it doesn’t mean you can treat them with disrespect. They will go back to the Admissions Office and share their thoughts on the people they met at the fair.
    • If you meet an Admission Counselor at the fair, they are probably the person that will make the decision on your application.
    • No matter who it is at the table, treat them with respect. Keep in mind – they may be keeping mental notes that will eventually find their way to your file.
  •  Don’t Talk or Text on Your Cell Phone While Talking to the Representative.
    • It’s rude and disrespectful.
    • If you have to pick up your phone while talking to the representative because it’s very important, excuse yourself and let the representative know you have to take the call.
      • Keep in mind that “important” doesn’t mean that your friend is calling to tell you where they are at the fair. Think before picking up the call – if it can wait, let it wait.
  •  Don’t Go Into The Fair Too Early.
    • Many of the larger fairs, like the NACAC Fairs, will have “guards” at the door and will not let anyone in until the start of the fair. But, smaller fairs, like the ones held at high schools, don’t hold students back from entering the fair before the official start time. Give the admissions representatives this time to prepare their tables and prepare for a few hours of talking with interested students. They need this time.
  • Don’t Stay After The Fair.
    • College fairs have specific hours for a reason. Arrive at the fair at the beginning so that you can visit all of the colleges you want during the official fair hours. Don’t stay late and keep the admissions representatives after the fair.
      • If the fair is in the day, the admissions representative might have to drive to another event and does not have much time to spare.
      • If the fair is in the evening, the admissions representatives probably had a long day of college fairs or high school visits and needs the rest. Plus, they might have a long drive ahead of them after their fair.
  • Don’t Cut In Line.
    • You’re not the only person in a hurry. Most people will have a list of colleges they want to visit before the end of the fair. Be respectful to the representative at the table and the other people at the fair.
    • If the line at a particular table is too long, you might want to go to the next college on your list and return to that college a little later once the line has become shorter.
  • Don’t Use A College Tables To Fill Out an Information Card for Another College.
    • Only use a table if it belongs to the college you are getting information from. If you use the table of another college, you could be in the way of someone that is truly interested in that particular college. Be respectful of their space.
  • Don’t Come Unprepared.
    • Most college fairs are only a few hours. Although it may seem like a lot of time, once you’re there, it will go quick and you’ll be asking yourself, “where did the time go?” by the end. If you come prepared with the list of colleges you want to see and the questions you want to ask, you’ll leave feeling good.
    • When you come unprepared, you’ll probably seem unprepared to the college representative. Being prepared when talking to college representatives will make a great impression; being unprepared will ALSO make an impression (and it will not be the impression you’ll want to make!).
  • Don’t Let Your Parents Do All The Talking.
    • It’s great that your parents are attending the college fair with you. But, you’re the one that will be attending college. Ask the questions you have for the representative. Your parents can ask questions too, but you shouldn’t stand back and be shy. Remember, the college fair is a great place to make a good impression on the college.
    • Also, don’t be rude to your parents at the college fair. This could be very awkward for everyone, including the college representative you are trying to impress.
  • Don’t Grab-and-Go.
    • As I said before, the college fair is a great opportunity to speak face-to-face with someone on the “inside” at the colleges you are considering. Take the opportunity to ask your questions and make a good impression on the representative at the table. You might not have this opportunity again.
  • Don’t Steal Pens or other Give-Aways.
    • Even when you’re trying to be sly, most of the college representatives see you. I don’t know how many times people would walk by the table, not make eye contact with me, put their hand at the table, grab a pen and keep going. If they would have asked, I would have been happy to give them a pen. This behavior just upset me when I was a representative.

The college fair is an important part of the college admissions process. To make it a successful fair for you, don’t do any of the things listed above!

Good luck at the fair!


Above Photo Credit: “College Fair 27” by COD Newsroom licensed by CC BY 2.0 |Text added to original.