Financial Aid Award Comparison

What is a Financial Aid Award Letter?

An important document that combines all of the different sources of financial aid that you're receiving and tells you how much college will cost for you.

It is provided by each college that accepts you and usually comes several weeks after your acceptance to that college.

Parts of A Financial Aid Award

Financial Aid = the combination of each of the following:

Merit Scholarships

These scholarships are free money that you don't have to pay back and are earned based on your academic or extracurricular successes, such as your GPA and SAT/ACT scores. They can either come from outside sources that you apply to separately, or from the school itself. Some merit scholarships that come from the school still require a separate application, so be sure to check for those and apply if you qualify!

Need-based Grants

This money is based on your financial need and you don't have to pay it back. It's basically free money to help you afford college and can come from one of three sources: the federal government, the state government, or the university itself.

Federal Loans

(Limited to $5,500 for the first year)

Today, most students need to take out some loans to afford college. Our general recommendation is to limit the amount of loans you take out, usually to a total of $5,500 per year through the Federal Direct Student Loan Program.


Work-Study is basically an on-campus job. It's usually a great place to start because it's more convenient and easier to balance with your school work. Though Work-Study jobs are often included on the award letters, they are most useful in paying for indirect (living) costs because keep in mind that you won't have this money until you start working.

The Logistics: How & When?

How you will receive your financial aid award:

Every college does financial aid slightly differently, but they all provide financial aid awards through one of the following three methods:

  • Mail
  • Email
  • Online Student Portal

As a very rough rule of thumb, larger, often public universities tend to use email and the Online Student Portal, while smaller, private institutions often also send a paper letter in the mail for a more personal touch.

When you will receive your financial aid award:

  • For early action or early decision → a couple weeks after the acceptance
  • For regular decision → by the end of March or the beginning of April

Sample Financial Aid Award Letters

Questions to Ask Yourself:

1. Does the award letter state the school's COST OF ATTENDANCE (COA)? What are the actual direct vs. indirect costs?

2. Is the HOUSING STATUS and ENROLLMENT STATUS on the award letter cover?

3. If you are awarded a GRANT OR SCHOLARSHIP based on scholastic achievement or talent, is it renewable each year? Is there a minimum grade point average you have to maintain? Can you switch majors but keep your grant or scholarship?

4. If your package contains LOANS, what are the INTEREST RATES of the loans that are offered to you?

5. Have they included the PARENT PLUS LOAN on the award letter?

6. What is the ESTIMATED BILLfor this year in college?

7. What is your EXPECTED FAMILY CONTRIBUTION (EFC)? How does this compare with what the college is really expecting your family to pay?

8. If you receive OUTSIDE SCHOLARSHIPS, will the college change your award letter? Does the college engage in DISPLACEMENT?

9. What are the NEXT STEPS to accept or decline the financial aid award if you decide to attend?

10. Is this award letter TENTATIVE, ESTIMATED, OR PENDING?

Sample Award Letter 1

Sample Award Letter 1

Tools for Comparing Financial Aid Awards

Now that you understand what a financial aid award letter is and why it's so important, you need to collect each of your award letters and compare them using these helpful tools. Remember, each college has a unique cost, so just because one financial aid award is larger doesn't necessarily mean that you are getting a better deal!

Award Letter Comparison

Award Comparison Tool #1

UAspire Award Letter Analyzer 2019

Award Comparison Tool #2

Award Letter Comparison- VR

Award Comparison Tool #3

After using one of these tools to compare your financial aid awards, ask yourself these 5 questions & schedule a meeting with your college adviser or counselor:

  1. Which school appears to be the most affordable?
  2. Did any school offer you more loans than you actually need to pay the bill?
  3. Are there any discrepancies that you notice between the award letters?
  4. Have you and your family discussed your EFC and how much you can make towards a down payment each semester?
  5. After comparing the finances, which school are you currently leaning towards and why?

Next Steps:

I haven't received any financial aid award letters!

Colleges usually send out financial aid award letters several weeks after the acceptance.

If you are accepted through early action or early decision, expect the financial aid award a couple weeks after the acceptance.

If you are accepted through regular decision in March, you should receive the financial aid award by the end of March or the beginning of April. Decision Day is May 1st, and you need to compare your financial aid awards prior to planning spring visits and making your college decision, so if you don't have all of your awards by the end of March, please contact the college!


The other reason that you may not have your financial aid award yet is that you were selected for verification and haven't submitted the required documents to your colleges.

Please, please check your portal and make sure you don't have any missing documents or tasks that the college is asking for. When in doubt, contact the college's financial aid office via email or phone.

My financial aid award doesn't make college affordable for me!

The sad reality is that not every college is going to be financially affordable for every student. That's why its very important to have a balanced college list, to know your family's financial situation, and to apply to colleges that are likely to be affordable.

If it's too late to apply to new colleges that are likely to be affordable, your last option is to file a financial aid appeal and ask the college(s) for a more generous aid package. Read more about that option here.