Hi, I'm Jodi Okun, and I'm here to help you understand the financial aid award letter. After you complete your FAFSA®, you'll receive two emails; a confirmation email with your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, and a second email with your Student Aid Report, or SAR for short.


The next step, is you're going to receive your financial aid award letter. You should receive this around February or March. You don't always receive it snail mail, some colleges post it in your online student center. Many colleges do not meet full financial need for every student, so there may be a difference you will need to pay.


Some points to consider when comparing financial aid award letters include:

  • The Cost of Attendance: Cost of Attendance, or COA, is the initial amount it costs to attend each college. This is normally listed on the award letter or available from the school's financial aid office and website. It includes costs like tuition, room, board, fees, books, transportation, and living expenses.
  • Grants and Scholarships: The award letter will list the grants, scholarships and work-study programs you can receive. If you subtract grants and scholarships from tuition, fees, room and board, this will give you the net price for what it will cost you to attend the college.


After you receive all your award letters, you should compare the colleges. Compare the net price for each school and determine the amount of student debt you or your child might have to take on to pay for each school. Use this information to talk with your child about choosing a college. If your student has an interest in a particular school that doesn't have the best financial aid package, discuss your situation further with the college's financial aid office. You could do this during a college visit.


Express your child's sincere interest and ask if there's anything else that can be done. If you can't change the final award amount, look for more scholarship aid on your own, or talk to your child about taking out federal or private student loans to cover the remaining balance.

The financial aid award letter details how much support the school can provide to help you pay for college.

Once you begin getting acceptances, it’s important to keep an eye on the mail/email and make sure you open any correspondence from the schools you’re considering. That’s because financial aid award letters will follow acceptances, beginning as early as February. This may come via snail mail or may be emailed or posted online in a communication center. You should have them all by April. If you don’t, circle back with your school.

It’s important to note that many colleges do not meet the full financial need of students. Depending on your financial circumstances, you may be expected to pay what’s called an Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. That’s why comparing aid packages can be important.

Once you have your award letters, you can begin comparing packages to assess which one makes the most sense for your financial situation. Understanding your package can also help you assess whether or not you may need private student loans as well, which you can use to help cover the costs associated with the Expected Family Contribution. But a financial aid award letter isn’t as simple as looking at one number. A financial aid award letter will include:

  • Grants
  • Scholarships
  • Federal student loan eligibility

These categories may be broken down further. For example, federal student loan aid may be subdivided into categories, including subsidized and unsubsidized loans, as well as the opportunity to earn money through Federal Work-Study.

Award letter templates can vary, so it’s a good idea to read each one thoroughly. Setting up a spreadsheet or using our Award Letter Comparison tool can help ensure you’re comparing categories correctly. As you’re looking through your awards, compare:

  • Cost of Attendance (COA)
  • Grants and scholarships
  • Work-study programs
  • Federal student loans
  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
  • Amount needed to cover the total cost of attendance

If your financial circumstances have changed since you submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you can also contact the financial aid office to appeal the package. You will have to submit new documents clarifying how your financial circumstances have changed.

Some schools will ask you to accept or reject each source of financial aid you are eligible to receive. If you reject a certain source of aid in your award letter, that does not mean another source of aid will increase. External scholarships may also impact your financial aid package. It is your responsibility to share information regarding any scholarships you have received. This may mean that the package will be revised with the scholarship in consideration. This may mean that aid is reduced in certain places, because the scholarship money is expected to fill that void.

Once you have a full picture on how much aid is offered through each school, you can begin to assess which package is best for you. You may also need to clarify certain offers within the financial aid award package. For example, are there stipulations regarding any institutional scholarships? Will you be guaranteed the scholarship each year or will you have to maintain a certain GPA or participation in extracurriculars or athletics? It’s also worth noting that you will have to fill out the FAFSA each year and awards may change based on your financial situation, the number of credits you’re taking each semester, and other external factors.

Calling the financial aid office can help you get any questions answered. In addition to budgeting for college tuition, it can also be a good idea to budget for additional expenses that aren’t covered by financial aid or private loans. This includes accounting for expenses such as food, entertainment, and other expenses that may crop up during the course of a semester.

Comparing college award letters can help you determine the package that makes the most sense for you and your family. Take your time looking through your award letter, and ask questions if you’re unclear about anything. Give yourself plenty of time to familiarize yourself with the package each school is offering.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

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