Tips for Understanding Award Letters

The fall season is filled with high school seniors applying to colleges and families completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and possibly, the CSS profile (College Scholarship Service Profile).  After college applications and the financial aid forms are submitted, students and families anticipate the receipt of the college acceptance letters followed by the college award letters.  Families should not confuse the award letter with the acceptance letter, which may arrive much or slightly earlier, and which may contain some merit award information.  The actual college award letter, which should be received by early to mid-April at the latest, will give a detailed listing of the student’s financial aid package by semester.  This package may contain scholarships, grants, and loans with amounts and sources for each.  The main purpose is to help families determine how to fill the financial gap between the Expected Family Contribution (the number that colleges use to determine how much families will need to pay for college) and the overall Cost of Attendance.  Please be aware that the EFC can vary between colleges.

Even if the student has a desired final choice for the school he or she wishes to attend, it is important to compare and contrast the award letters to determine which school is offering the most “free” money or scholarships and grants which will not need to be repaid.  This can be difficult because there is no standard format for financial aid award letters.  This makes it very challenging to interpret, and to compare and contrast them.

In order to aid families in becoming savvier when reading the financial aid letters, the following are some important tips:

  • The Cost of Attendance (COA) may be higher than the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). In addition to any “free” money, the colleges will likely add federal subsidized or unsubsidized loans to the package.  Of course these loans must be repaid, and there may still be unmet need which may call for more loans or other methods of payment.
  • Be sure to consider all expenses in determining Cost of Attendance (COA). Remember to consider tuition and fees, room and board, text books, supplies, travel and transportation, computer/printer, student health insurance, and personal expenses.
  • When reviewing all expenses, do not underestimate. There can be large differences between various items on the list including textbooks, travel and transportation, off-campus housing, and personal expenses.  Some great sites for purchasing or renting text books include,, and
  • If a student qualifies for a work study, the funds are not guaranteed. The student is paid as the money is earned.  If the student works less hours, he or she may not earn the complete amount of the estimated work study awards.  Especially for freshmen, it may be difficult to find a work-study job on campus.
  • Some colleges front-load grants in the early years of college and give lesser amounts in following years.
  • Keep in mind that the award letter is only for one year. The FAFSA must be filed each year.  Student and family situations, college tuition and additional expenses may change.  It is estimated that the overall student debt at graduation will be approximately four to five times the freshman year debt for students earning their baccalaureate degrees.

NEPA Career and College Counseling Associates – Excellence in Career and College Preparation – is available to help all students plan for career and college.  Services include aiding in the college admissions process, setting up college visits, arranging career shadow experiences, advising students on college admissions testing, interview process, resume development, essays, financial aid and scholarships.

Contact Jennifer L. Severini-Kresock, who is an experienced private career and college counselor at (570) 702-5700 or for more information on this article and on her career and college preparation services.

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