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financial aid tips — part 2

Understanding the Role of Your Admissions Application

Schools may base some institutional aid on information contained in your admissions application. This demonstrates the importance of thoroughness when completing your application. While the first goal of your application should be to gain acceptance, the second goal in the application process should be to positively influence the financial aid process. Take the time necessary to make your application look as professional and complete as possible. It's important to realize that, although you may be accepted, a sloppy or incomplete admissions application could cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars in financial aid. Remember that any contact you have with the college or university will produce some type of impression.

7. The Extra Essay
One of your goals in completing your application should be to make yourself stand out, to be viewed as the type of student who will make a difference at the school of your choice. One way to accomplish this is to write an extra essay on why you feel you can make a contribution to the college/university to which you're applying. Send a copy to the Director of Financial Aid along with a list of your list of honors and activities.

However, be careful to avoid the perception of arrogance. Admissions and financial aid personnel may not be impressed with a student who views himself/herself as the pinnacle of high school achievement. You do not want to insult the school by suggesting that they will have to close the doors unless they are blessed with your enrollment. One way to balance your essay is to also describe how you would benefit from the opportunities at the school.

8. Gain Allies
Individuals at the school eager to see you enroll can help you gain a stronger financial aid package. It’s important for the admissions and financial aid offices to view you in a positive light. Thus, it is important to have "allies" at the school who may enhance the way you are perceived. You may find that some schools have admissions counselors, students, faculty, alumni, or coaches that contact you directly. If this is the case, it will make your task easier. Remember that, especially after acceptance, admissions officers are normally one set of "allies". At most schools, it's the job of the admissions officer to encourage you to enroll once you have been accepted.

If you are strong in art, biology, music, nursing, etc., contact those academic offices. If you are a strong athlete or musician, the coaches or music faculty may already be in contact with you. Introduce yourself to the group of people within your areas of strength and interest. You may be pleasantly surprised by a faculty member's willingness to assist you as a prospective student within their major. If you have made the appropriate contacts, these individuals may be willing to appeal to the financial aid office on your behalf. Gain allies wherever possible, and have them speak, or better yet, write a letter to the financial aid office before your financial aid package is completed. Your goal is to have the financial aid office hear positive feedback from as many sources as possible.

9. Know Your Position Relative to the School
Be sure that you understand the circumstances in which the college/university is operating. You must deal differently with a school that has applicants on a waiting list, than with a school that is struggling to maintain enrollment. Chances are the former school will be less likely to put together a stronger financial aid package if they have a list of students eager to enroll.

As with any rule, there are exceptions. If you are truly gifted in a particular area, even the more competitive schools may be willing to put together a stronger financial aid package. In general, the lower the acceptance rate, the more difficult it will be to gain a generous financial aid package.

10. "The Big Fish in a Small Pond"
As we have just discussed, a school with a more "competitive" admissions policy may not be as likely to put together a strong financial aid package. Your decision of whether to be "a big fish in a small pond" or a "small fish in a big pond" can impact your financial aid.

Let's say you have been accepted to three schools, one of which has an outstanding national reputation. All three schools may be eager to have you enroll, but the two lesser-known schools are more likely to view you as the type of student who can make a positive impact on campus. The school with the stronger reputation, although they may also like to have you enroll, may view you no differently than the hundreds or thousands of other freshmen accepted.

There is no right or wrong answer to which type of school is best for you. You just need to consider what is more important to you. For some students, additional cost at a more "prestigious" school may be a small price to pay.

Some students may base their college choice almost exclusively on the best "deal" they can find. Other students choose a school based on reputation alone, unwilling to consider that another school may meet all their needs equally well and be more affordable. I believe that balance in this area is critical, only you and your family can determine the role finances will play in your decision. The point here is that a "lesser known" school, meeting all your guidelines for a quality education and a comfortable environment, may be more likely to provide you with a stronger financial aid package. However, I also believe that it’s unwise to attend any school based exclusively on final cost.

11. Be Assertive
Assertiveness doesn't mean that the financial aid office expects it to be you every time the telephone rings. Assertive in this case means taking the above information and applying it to your situation. Make contact without annoying. I appreciated working with students who honestly expressed financial aid concerns much more than dealing with those who I felt were just trying to "milk" as much money as possible from the college. I was also more likely to take positive action for the former group. Honestly ask yourself, "Am I the type of student this school especially wants to enroll?" The answer to this question will help you know how assertive you can be.

12. Understand What Your Financial Aid Package Really Means
The "bottom line" may not be as simple as it appears. Make a distinction between loans, college work-study and grants or scholarships. Don't just look at the total amount of financial aid.

For example, the cost at "College A" and "University B" are equivalent and both have sent you a financial aid package. Each financial aid package offers the same total aid. However, "College A" has more loans in their package and so it is "University B" that is offering the stronger financial aid package.

Another important point is that the schools from which you are receiving financial aid packages may vary greatly in cost. It's imperative that the financial aid packages are compared by subtracting the aid received from the total cost (tuition and fees and room and board) of each school to determine which one is actually the less expensive option. Remember, institutional financial aid is in essence a "discount". A more “expensive” school may offer a greater "discount" than one that is less expensive.

Be sure to learn what scholarships and grants may continue after the first year. In my experience, very few students and their families asked this important question. It’s likely that an academic scholarship will only be renewed if you obtain a certain grade point average. There also may be applications or other procedures necessary to have scholarships or grants renewed. There also could be grants or scholarships that are not renewable. You especially need to be aware of these. A school that has a stronger first year financial aid package may not be the best package overall once you learn the answer to these questions.

13. Do Not Make A Decision Without All The Facts
One of the most frustrating things I dealt with while in admissions was having students choose a school before seeing all the financial aid packages. If you are deciding between a number of schools, please do not make a decision before seeing the financial aid package from each school!

I dealt with a student who planned to attend another school. She was confident in her decision and did not want to participate in a scholarship competition at our school. However, after getting the financial aid package from the school she planned to attend, she realized that the cost was greater than her family was willing or able to pay. She realized she could attend our school less expensively. Unfortunately, she missed the opportunity for an even stronger financial aid package from our school because she never participated in our scholarship competition. In short, don't overlook any opportunity, especially if you have not seen the financial aid packages from each school you are considering.

One school may ask for an earlier decision than the others. Learn deadlines in advance and let the schools know if you must have their financial aid package(s) by a certain date. The school(s) may be quick to respond if they feel they will lose you by delaying.

By doing your "homework" and asking the right questions at the right time, you may find that a college education can be a more affordable investment than you imagined. I hope this two part series on institutional financial aid has been helpful as you consider the financial aid process. Please be sure to take into account all the factors discussed before making your final college choice. Best wishes in your search!

This article continues here:

Financial Aid – an overview, by Brian Madden

Institutional Financial Aid - Part 1

Institutional Financial Aid - Part 2

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