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Why an Honest Conversation with a Financial Aid Officer Matters

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This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

It’s important to meet with a financial aid officer when you visit colleges if you can.

(Some colleges don’t publish that as an option on their campus visit website, but ask if you can meet with a financial aid professional anyway.)

Financial aid officers work in the office that delivers your financial aid award letter. Now you see why you should meet with someone in that office!

The financial aid award, also called a financial aid package, details the costs of attending a college for one academic year. Most colleges send out financial aid award letters around the same time as admission offer letters, but the timing differs from school to school.

Meeting with a financial aid professional prior to receiving your financial aid award can give you insight into what you can expect on that aid award letter.

How to Introduce Yourself to College Financial Aid Officers 

Does your mind go blank as soon as you’re sitting across from someone really, really important?

You had 1,000 emails already written in your mind, but they just floated away the second you sat down. Sound familiar?

Totally understandable. That’s why it’s a great idea to prepare a list of questions ahead of time so you know exactly how the conversation will go. 

Just remember that you can still call, email and stay in touch. You’ll still have opportunities to connect later.

Step 1: Introduce yourself. 

You want the financial aid officer to know you as a person so he or she can help you. If you talk about your love for creative writing, that’s a perfect time for a financial aid officer to say, “That’s great! We have a fantastic creative writing scholarship, renewable every year for four years.”

See how this goes?

Step 2: Ask for the basics, then go into more than just surface-level information.

Talk about general costs, then ask the financial aid officer to go deeper.

Push the person you meet with for more information beyond the standard, “Here’s the tuition, room and board and fees you’ll pay.” Ask for hidden costs like activity fees, lab fees, printer fees and more. 

Ask about your potential for earning grants, scholarships, work-study or loans—your personal potential for earning those, not just what each school “generally” offers.

Note that listing a college on your FAFSA form doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get financial aid from that college. Ask the financial aid office when you meet what more you need to do to apply for aid at that college.

Step 3: Ask for help if you need it.

The financial aid office should say, “We’re more than happy to help you file the FAFSA/apply for aid/help you read your financial aid award letter/whatever else!”

Don’t think that even for a second you should hesitate to ask.

Any financial aid officer should offer to help you directly or point you toward another resource. That’s their job.

Step 4: Ask for your exact next steps.

Any financial aid office you work with should be able to direct you toward what’s happening now, what should happen next and what’s coming down the pipeline.

For example, when you both talk about filing the FAFSA and the CSS Profile, the financial aid officer should also give you thorough steps and guidelines so you know what to do next. 

Step 5: Initiate tough conversations.

Did you get a financial aid award that really surprised you?

In other words, it’s way more expensive than you thought it would be—or more fees got added than you expected.

Yes, it’s normal to feel emotional about the financial aid award. You might even feel completely unprepared to get these conversations going with the financial aid office.

Here’s how you can tackle them, and the steps you can take next. (As always, check with the financial aid officer you connect with on your visit for exact steps you need to take.)

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Why You MUST Befriend Your Financial Aid Officer

How to Appeal for More Financial Aid

Reach Out

The first step is to look for those email addresses or phone numbers for the admission office or financial aid office. Ask if you can appeal your child’s financial aid award. Most colleges will ask you and your student to write a letter.

Write Down a List of Concerns

Don’t discount how you could get emotional talking about financial aid, but try to keep that out of your list of concerns. Identify the special circumstances that affect your ability to pay for college, such as a job loss, a sudden (expensive) health issue or another child in the family who has special needs, etc. 

You appeal for more financial aid because you have special circumstances. Wanting more money is usually not enough of a reason for a financial aid appeal, though you can certainly ask. 

Put Together Your Letter

Keep your letter concise, limiting it to one or two pages. The letter should summarize the special circumstances and the impact they have or have had on your family. If you have more than one special circumstance, put all of them in a bulleted list.

Gather Documentation

Gather documentation of your special circumstances. Layoff notices, medical bills, bank statements, receipts—anything that can show your family’s situation.

Teachers, school counselors, social workers, doctors or clergy members could write a letter, but make sure these letters relate to your special circumstances.

Complete Special Circumstances Forms

Complete any forms the college financial aid office requires. These forms help the college see your financial circumstances in a single glance. Most colleges perform a comprehensive review of your financial circumstances when you appeal for more financial aid.

Follow Up

Call or email each financial aid office to make sure you’ve given them the right information. Find out if the college needs more information in addition to what you’ve already provided.

Again, this process can make you feel emotional, but the best tool you have in your toolkit is to work closely with financial aid professionals. Many families have been impacted by COVID-19, but remember that schools still have to fill seats—they want to work with you!

Continue the Relationship

You want to get to know as many people as possible when you’re visiting colleges.

Don’t skip the financial aid office when you visit. It can be kind of nerve-wracking to talk to financial aid professionals because so much remains on the line. 

You’ll understand quite a bit about what the school has to offer financially, ways to get college paid for, how financial aid works at that particular college and how much it will likely cost to attend that school.

Author: Melissa Brock

Melissa Brock is the founder of College Money Tips and Money editor at Benzinga. She loves helping families navigate their finances and the college search process. Check out her essential timeline and checklist for the college search!