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When and how to appeal a financial aid award

The process varies from school to school, and there’s no guarantee that your appeal will be approved, but there are steps you can take to improve your chances of increasing your college financial aid.

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Your latest financial aid award letter arrives, and you tear it open, eager to find out how much money you’re getting — but you’re met with disappointment.

Maybe the offer’s less generous than the ones you’ve received from other colleges. Maybe it has way too many loans and not enough grants and scholarships. Maybe it prevents you from attending that particular school. But what if that school is your first choice, or your FAFSA no longer tells your whole financial story? Then the appeals process comes into play.

That’s right: You can ask for more “gift aid” — that’s money that doesn’t have to be paid back, unlike student loans.

The process varies from school to school, and there’s no guarantee that your appeal will be approved, but there are steps you can take to improve your chances.

Here’s what you should know about appealing your financial aid award:

When to appeal your financial aid award

The appeals process isn’t for everyone. “Saying, ‘We didn’t save enough money, can you please give us more’ just isn’t a compelling enough reason,” notes Zena Taylor, founder of College Select, a service that helps students find and apply to schools.

Here are the main reasons to appeal your award:

Your financial circumstances have changed. If your family has experienced a life event that impacts its finances and isn’t reflected on your FAFSA, you’re probably a good candidate for an appeal. These changes can include a birth or death, unemployment, disability, divorce, lowered income, moving, selling a house or having another child enter college.

Most colleges will help you find additional need-based aid — but you have to back up your claims. Supplying supporting documents, such as medical bills, helps.

Your top school offered less aid than another. Some schools will work with you to match or beat another school’s offer if it means locking in your acceptance — especially if you’re an exceptional candidate.

“At many schools, it’s a buyer’s market,” explains Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution,” a book aimed at helping students find the right school at the right price. “You’re going to be more likely to succeed [in getting more financial aid] if you’re looking at a private school than at a public school. They’re more eager to fill their spots.”

Stephanie Goldberg-Mauro, founder of consulting company College Planning 101, suggests researching the SAT and ACT score ranges of the college’s previous freshman class using the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator tool. If your scores are in the 75th percentile or higher, you may be able to leverage them to secure more merit-based aid.

You can also use the College Board’s search tool to learn about the average financial aid package awarded by each school you’re considering. This will help you decide if appealing is the right move.

How to appeal your financial aid award

Email — don’t call — the school’s financial aid office to find out its appeals guidelines.

“Have you tried calling a college lately?” Goldberg-Mauro asks. “You can’t get through. You can call and call and call; they are so slammed with requests — but they’re going to check their email.”

The response you receive should tell you whom to contact, how to get in touch with him or her and any special requirements you must meet.

Once you have this information, figure out exactly how much you want, why you want it and how to put it in writing. The more specific you are, the more likely it is that the school will approve your appeal.

Another useful tip: Speak their language.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘negotiate’; they don’t like that. And don’t just appeal to a school emotionally. They’re not going to relate to that,” O’Shaughnessy says.

Instead, Taylor suggests saying, “You’re my first choice,” or asking if there’s anything the school can do to enable you to attend.

If you document your situation, ask for a specific sum, show that you’re willing to work for the extra aid and sprinkle in a bit of flattery, you’ll have a good shot at approval. But it’s important to go in with realistic expectations, Goldberg-Mauro says. She advises students to expect nothing, but hope for the best.

“We might get another $500, or we’ve had one offer go from $8,000 into a $30,000 award. So there’s a huge range,” she says.

If your financial aid award appeal is rejected

If your appeal isn’t successful, you might still be able to close the gap. For example, you can ask to have the cost of attendance adjusted for your circumstances, covering your commuting costs, for example, or the costs of required items, such as a laptop or textbooks. This might qualify you for more aid. If that doesn’t work, it might be time to consider a less expensive alternative.

“Don’t go to a school that costs too much money,” O’Shaughnessy says. “Do not go into huge debt because you think this degree is going to be magical.”

Devon Delfino is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: ddelfino@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @devondelfino.

This article first appeared in NerdWallet

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