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Appealing Financial Aid and Merit Scholarship Awards

a Mom and daughter discuss a merit scholarship award


Appealing a financial aid decision can result in getting thousands of dollars more for college. But many students aren't aware that you can appeal if you're unsatisfied with the financial aid award you receive. To help you navigate this situation should you receive a less than satisfactory financial aid package, we'll explain the process of appealing a merit scholarship or need-based financial aid now.

What is a Financial Aid Appeal? 

A financial aid appeal is a formal process in which a student requests an improved or more favorable financial aid package from a school. This process usually includes a financial aid appeal letter written by the student, with supporting documentation demonstrating the need or justifying the request. 

Should You Appeal Your Merit Scholarship or Financial Aid Award?

Whether you do or don't appeal an award package depends on your unique needs and circumstances. We'll walk you through some points to help you decide for yourself. However, you might be surprised to learn that you don't always need a compelling reason to appeal. 

Conventional wisdom says you must have an excellent reason to successfully appeal a disappointing financial aid award, such as a job loss, a death, a divorce, large medical bills, or other special circumstances. But that's not always true.

Whether a college will provide more need-based aid or sweeten a merit scholarship depends on how much the institution wants you. Another potential factor is how a university's freshman deposits are faring. For example, if the number of high school seniors enrolling for the fall isn't meeting expectations, a college could be more likely to improve your offer.

A former president of a Midwestern university once shared that his institution would give an accepted student an extra $2,000 or $3,000 each year for all sorts of dubious reasons if enrollment numbers lagged. He recalled, for instance, that the university awarded a student a total of $8,000 more aid after she said that her aunt was an alumna.

Still, you are more likely to be successful in appealing for more financial aid (as opposed to merit aid) if your family is affected by special circumstances. 

Here are some of those potential circumstances:

  • A significant change to your or your parent's income
  • Death of a parent or spouse
  • A serious illness or diagnosis
  • Divorce or separation of parents or spouse
  • Change of marital status 
  • Significant out-of-pocket medical expenses 

Considerations Before Appealing 

  • Do you understand your financial aid award?

Start by thoroughly reviewing and understanding all parts of your financial aid award letter. It's beneficial to pay attention to your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is a dollar amount representing what you are expected to pay for one year of college. The higher your assets and income, the higher your EFC and the lower your chances for need-based aid.

Example: After subtracting your EFC, your financial need is $30,000, and the school only offers $10,000 in financial aid. That's a poor award.

Your EFC should be on your award letter; if it isn't, ask the institution for this figure.

  • How much is the school's average financial aid award?

Some universities provide excellent financial aid, and many do not. So comparing an award with any other awards, you may have had in a previous year can be helpful. Or, you can find the average merit and financial aid awards for a college or university on the College Board's website.

  • Know that appealing for merit aid won't always help

Consider this scenario: your family is too affluent to qualify for need-based aid, so you apply for merit scholarships. Your favorite college accepted you, but you didn't get a merit scholarship and now face the prospect of paying full price.

Some colleges and universities maintain a firm policy of not entertaining appeals for merit awards, but many will consider these appeals. However, elite schools, such as the Ivy League, MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech, Amherst, and more, often won't award merit scholarships. So know which schools do and don't before starting an appeal and wasting your time. 

When Can You Appeal Your Merit Scholarship or Financial Aid Award?

There is no set or established time frame for appeals to take place. You might submit your FAFSA, and then something changes for you. It's indeed plausible that could happen since you use the previous year's tax information to complete your FAFSA.

Alternatively, your financial circumstances could change in the middle of the school year. In which case, you'd pursue an appeal at that time. Or, you could get your financial aid award letter and realize it won't meet your needs. Wherever you are in the process, it's never too late to appeal.

Just know that it's usually a lengthy process. However, starting with appropriate expectations will help you maintain your positive outlook throughout it. 

How to Appeal Your Merit Scholarship or Financial Aid Award

Here are the essential steps to appeal a merit scholarship and financial aid award. 

  • Contact the financial aid office

Start by contacting the financial aid office and explaining your situation and concerns. Next, ask how you can initiate an appeal and how the appeal process usually works. Then be sure to understand any directions you're given. 

Having this chat might feel nerve-wracking or stressful if you really want to attend this school. But discussing these things from the outset can significantly ease your mind and help you prepare. 

  • Submit a formal appeal letter

Once you talk with someone in the financial aid office, you'll probably need to write a formal letter explaining your situation and asking for additional financial aid. The letter should be written from you, the student, and not a parent. Keep it concise, stick to the facts, and include any supporting documentation if possible. For instance, if you were hit with unexpected medical expenses, you could consist of your hospital bills. Or, if you've lost your job, you could include a termination notice. 

  1. Be ready to meet with the financial aid office if asked to

The financial aid office may request an in-person or virtual meeting to discuss the appeal further. This is an excellent opportunity to provide more information and ask any questions you might have.

Talking to the Financial Aid Office 

Here are some helpful tips to help you navigate any conversations. 

  • Ask how your home equity impacted your aid

Most colleges and universities do not consider equity in your primary home at all. However, institutions that use the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE require that you share the value of your home equity, which can hurt your chances for need-based financial aid.

You can appeal a college's use of your home equity and ask the institution to limit the damage it would cause to an award.

  • Don't use the word negotiate

Admission staff and financial aid administrators prefer that families accept their first offers, but that's often unrealistic. So avoid antagonizing the people giving you money by using the word negotiate

  • Back up your appeal with details

It's a non-starter to complain to admissions officers that their colleges are too expensive. Instead, be as detailed as possible when asking for more financial assistance. As we've said, provide copies of the bills if you struggle with high medical bills. If a parent was laid off, show proof. Independent, third-party documentation is ideal.

  • Share competing offers if you have them

You will often be in a better position to squeeze more money out of a college if you can prove that you possess better offers. Tell your contact person you've received more money from another school, and offer to send it over in an email. Just remember that you'll want to report on the dollar amount of the competing offer and the percentage of the tuition and other expenses the scholarship represents. That way, the financial aid office can compare apples to apples. 

After Appealing Your Merit Scholarship or Financial Aid Award

So now you know what's involved in appealing an aid award. Whether you choose to appeal an award or not, you can almost always benefit from looking for supplemental scholarships. With Appily, finding scholarship money is easy. Create a free account, and you'll have access to our extensive and up-to-date database of scholarships and schools. 

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