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Having a tough time comparing your financial aid award notifications to figure out which institution is offering you the best package? Check out Peter Van Buskirk’s hints in his column from US News & World Report.

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After you submit your application for financial aid, you should receive a financial aid award notification from the college, which spells out the details of your financial aid package. Some schools will notify you by mail, while others send an email. Either way, once you receive notifications from all the colleges to which you applied, it is now your job to compare these financial aid packages and figure out which offer works best for you. Remember, just because a school offers you more financial aid doesn’t mean it’s the better deal, especially if the tuition was higher to begin with or if much of the package is in the form of loans that must be repaid.

Reading financial aid award notifications can be confusing if you’re not sure what to look for. What makes it so difficult is that there is no standard format for award letters. Virtually every college writes its own award letters, so each letter has a different format and use of language, making it difficult to compare and contrast offers from various schools.

We suggest reading each notification carefully to figure out the following:

  • The total amount of financial aid you’ve received
  • The amount of aid that is scholarship or grant money (which doesn’t have to be paid back) versus the amount of aid that is loan money (which must be repaid, sometimes with interest)
  • Whether there’s still unmet need that you must cover out of pocket or with alternative sources of funding

You should also take into account whether there will be differences in transportation costs, room & board, or other fees.

If you are still having difficulty decoding your award letters, talk to a financial aid officer at the college or check out the Simple Award Letter Comparison Tool at www.finaid.org. It compares the financial aid packages from up to three colleges, calculates the net cost and out-of-pocket cost, and estimates the lifetime cost of any education loans.

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