Navigating Financial Aid

Tips for understanding the financial aid process

a decrease in your award package. “Some schools take [outside scholarships] directly off what the institution is going to give,” Ellison says. Find out how your school will treat outside scholarships. 


Aid Tip: Learn your schools financial aid processes inside out. Speak to counselors, upperclassman, and professors. Understand the jargon and be prepared. 



Don’t start the financial aid process without knowing these key terms: 

FAFSA: Free Application for Student Aid, determines your eligibility for federal aid. It must be filled out each year and can be accessed Jan.1 on 


CSS Profile: The College Scholarship Profile is used by more than 600 institutions to determine student eligibility for nonfederal aid. Check with your institution to see if it is required.  


EFC: Expected Family Contribution is “a measure of the family’s ability to absorb educational costs over a period of time,” says Mark Ellison, director of Admissions and Financial Aid for Amherst College. Your EFC is determined once you’ve filled out your FAFSA.



Merit-based awards: These are usually based upon academic, artistic, athletic or some other non-need-based criteria to award aid. 


Need-based awards: Aid based upon your financial status. 



Award letter: Issued by the school’s financial aid office, it breaks down your financial aid package based upon grants, loans, scholarships and federal work-study. You must accept or decline the award by the school’s deadline.  


Appeal: A request to have your financial aid package reviewed by a school’s financial aid administrator. Students should document any extenuating circumstances that will affect your financial situation such as the death of a parent, unemployment, divorce, separation, and medical conditions.  


Federal work-study: A federal program that provides students with part-time employment with their school during the academic year. This need-based aid is based on eligibility. 


Federal loans: Loans backed by the government. Federal loans include the Stafford Loans, Plus Loan, and Federal Perkins Loan. They all have different eligibility requirements, interest rates, and repayment rules. 


Subsidized Loans: Loans that are subsidized will have the interest of the loans covered over a specific period, usually while students are enrolled full-time in college and for up to six month after graduation. With a federally subsidized loan, the government pays the interest while the student is enrolled and during the six month grace period. 


Private loans: Education loan programs that are established by private lenders to supplement financial aid awards..


529 Plan: Also known as qualified tuition plans (QTP) according to, this plan allows parents to set aside money for educational expenses with “tax deferred growth.” Plans can vary by state. Families can be enrolled in a 529 plan through a financial adviser or 529 Plan manager. Check out for a list of plan managers by state.


Resources A free scholarship matching service A financial aid resource guide, Offers a biweekly newsletter containing scholarship, internship, and grant information.

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