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April 1 marks the height of decision season for colleges nationwide, a date by which high school seniors will learn whether they’ll be joining the incoming freshmen class. It is also the time of year when students can expect to receive financial aid award letters from the colleges.

 

These letters or emails spell out the details of your financial aid package, which FinAid.org describes as “a collection of different types of financial aid from multiple sources…  intended to help you fill the gap between your ability to pay (your expected family contribution or EFC) and college costs (the cost of attendance or COA).”

 

Be warned: There is no standard format for award letters, so it might be difficult for you to compare awards from different institutions to make sure you are getting the best deal. If you need assistance interpreting and comparing financial aid award letters, check out FinAid.org’s quick reference guide. It includes a discussion of net cost and out-of-pocket cost, a summary of problems and pitfalls with financial aid award letters, a list of questions to ask college financial aid administrators, and a glossary of common terms used on financial aid award letters.

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Today is the first day of spring! Flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and financial aid award letters are showing up in the mailboxes (and email inboxes) of college-going seniors. When you get that award letter, it’s easy to jump right to the line that tells you exactly how much aid you are receiving. But don’t be fooled. All financial aid is not equal.

The most important thing to keep in mind is the bottom line: The amount you owe will depend on the cost of attendance (COA) minus the aid you are offered. If College A offers you $2,500 in aid, while University B provides $4,000, College A is still the better deal if its total COA is $1,501 less than University B.

Also be sure you know exactly what types of aid are being offered. Is it a grant (which doesn’t have to be repaid), a work-study offer (which requires time spent at a job), or a loan (which will have to be repaid), or a combination? You should also be on the lookout for aid requirements, such as maintaining a certain GPA or studying a particular subject.

Still confused? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Ask your school counselor for help or call the college for clarification. You can also find online articles about how to compare financial aid offers, such as this one from US News & World Report.

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