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How to Write a Compelling Financial Aid Appeal Letter

Here’s a scenario: It’s mid-March of your senior year of high school, and you’re starting to hear from the colleges you applied to. You’ve been dreaming of attending Miskatonic University since you read about its one-of-a-kind cryptozoology program in sixth grade. It’s,

like, hard to get in though, and you knew your application was a long shot. And yet, here it is, your letter of acceptance from Miskatonic: they hope you will join the Squids Class of ‘24!

But there’s a problem, and it starts with “m” and rhymes with honey. You were hoping for more financial help, and this just won’t be enough to afford your dream school. Fortunately, this is not the end of your dreams: This is where the financial aid appeal comes in.

This post will break down the key aspects of appealing for more financial aid to colleges a student has been accepted to, including:

  • Who should appeal and when to appeal

  • How to approach an appeal letter or phone call

  • Dos and don’ts of financial aid appeals

  • Updates based on COVID-19

First, a note to students (and their families) who are currently juniors or younger: prevention is the best cure when it comes to appealing for more aid. What I mean is that it’s best to avoid being in that position in the first place, if possible. I advise all students to include financial concerns in their criteria for choosing the good fit colleges to apply to. As you think about what you want from your college experience and research to build your list, make sure to factor in whether you and your family will be able to afford the cost of attendance. Use the Net Price Calculator available on each school’s financial aid webpage to estimate what you might be expected to pay. It only helps in the long run to have realistic expectations from the start.

That's all well and good, but I want to go to Miskatonic, and I don't have a time machine. What do I do?

Now, let’s assume you’re facing a dilemma similar to that of the Miskatonic hopeful in the first paragraph. Should you appeal for more financial aid?

Generally, the most valid reason to submit a financial aid appeal is that your family has experienced changes in the past year or two that affect your ability to pay for college. The FAFSA, the application that colleges use to determine how much aid to award you, is based on tax returns from the year prior to when you submit it. For example, the FAFSA for the incoming 2020 freshman class is based on 2018 tax returns, meaning it reflects a family’s finances from nearly two years before the student’s first semester of college. If your family has experienced a dip in income or assets since that prior-year tax return, you have a strong case for winning your appeal, as long as you have documents to back it up.

Here are just a few examples of special circumstances that would affect a family’s ability to pay for college:

  • A parent has lost his or her job or been put on unpaid leave

  • A parent has been injured, affecting ability to work and incurring medical bills

  • A parent’s wages or hours have been reduced

  • Divorce or legal separation of parents

  • A death in the family

Simply not getting as much money as you had hoped will probably not be enough of a reason to earn more financial aid, but there is an exception: If you are accepted to one of your top choice schools and the award amount is significantly lower than the amounts offered by the rest of the schools you were accepted to, it is worth trying to appeal for more aid by showing your top school how much money you received from a comparable university - make sure to stress how much you want to go to your first choice.

Ultimately, my advice would be to err on the side of going for it if you’re uncertain you’ll win the appeal. Colleges won’t get mad that you’re asking for more and take back their initial offer, so the worst that could happen is being turned down for additional funds. In short, it doesn’t hurt to try.

When should an appeal be submitted?

As soon as possible, with one caveat. If the very first award letter you receive is disappointing, hold off on appealing it until you receive a few more. It will be helpful to compare it to more generous offers if the college asks for evidence. Generally, though, it’s important to complete all steps of an appeal as promptly as possible so that you can commit before the May 1st deadline (more on that date later).

How should I ask for more money?

If you’ve ever had to ask your parents for money that you’re not sure they’ll give you, you know this is a delicate question. To begin with, visit the financial aid section of the school’s website to see if there is a specific process or application for appeals. Generally, the process will involve writing a letter or statement of purpose explaining the reasons for asking for more aid, but those who feel most comfortable speaking to an actual person are encouraged to call the financial aid office directly. It's a great idea to combine both approaches: Call them, state your case concisely and persuasively, and then follow up with an email with the actual letter.

What should my letter look like, style-wise?

A good appeal letter should be structured like this:

  • Paragraph 1: Introduce yourself and briefly share your interest in attending the school and your gratitude for being given a chance to attend.

  • Paragraph 2: Clearly explain your purpose for writing: you would love to attend that school but your family will not be able to afford the cost of attending, so you are requesting another review of your financial aid and merit aid eligibility.

  • Paragraphs 3-4: Describe your family’s financial situation and provide specific details ($$$) that demonstrate why your finances have changed and are deserving of further review. This can be one or more paragraphs depending on how many details you have to share, but be concise: your letter should fit on a single page.

  • Conclusion: Thank the financial aid office for considering your appeal and ask if there are any more documents you should provide or next steps to take.

When I looked online, their office says to make a phone call for financial aid appeals. Any advice on that?

If appealing by phone call, follow the same basic guidelines, but remember that a phone conversation involves two-way communication. Make sure to pause after sharing your info and listen carefully. Take notes! You might learn something you didn’t expect that will help you through the process. Also, avoid reading a prepared speech; if you’re worried about forgetting what you meant to say, write down talking points to refer to during the call.

With this basic approach in mind, here are a few dos and don’ts to make your appeal as strong as possible. Let’s start with the don’ts:

Dos and Don'ts of a Financial Aid Appeal Letter

  • Don’t immediately mention the other offers you’re considering from other schools and how much they promised you. This could be perceived as “window shopping” rather than genuinely wanting to attend that school. It’s important to convey that you reeeeally want to go to this school, not that it’s one of several options. On the other hand, if a financial aid officer specifically asks you to share the other schools you’ve been accepted to and how much they offered, be honest and forthcoming.

  • Don’t get defensive and heated. This issue naturally hits close to home given the stakes, but it’s important to make your appeal with poise, not recklessness. Financial aid officers are reasonable people who are generally eager to help.

  • Don’t lie about your family’s finances or ability to pay. Not only is honesty always the best policy to begin with, but any financial details you use to make your case will need to be backed up by documentation.

  • Don’t go overboard sharing your recent achievements or activities. If you have been promoted to president of the geography club since you submitted your application, congratulations, but that will not really affect your financial aid offer. At the same time, sharing a few examples of your hard work and commitment to demonstrate your character is acceptable.

  • Don’t wait until the last minute to make your appeal. Do it as soon as possible!

Now, here are some dos to follow when making your appeal:

  • Do gather all supporting documents and have them ready to refer to when writing your appeal or calling the financial aid office. If sending a letter, make copies of each document and include it with the letter to make the process more efficient and save time. UC Santa Cruz’s financial aid page provides a good overview of the type of documents that can be used to support financial changes.

  • Do be straightforward but respectful when expressing your desire to ask for more financial aid. If your appeal is denied, there are no higher courts to appeal to, this is it. Use this opportunity to demonstrate your maturity and character.

  • Do compare the financial aid offers you receive from each school and determine if you will make an official appeal before committing to a school. Although financial aid appeals can be made at any time while enrolled as a student, your decision on where to attend should be based on actual financial aid amounts, not hopes of what you might eventually get.

  • Do always remember that the financial aid officers who will be hearing and evaluating your appeal are human beings. By communicating with them, you are building a connection that can either be positive or negative. Make sure to leave a good impression by treating them with courtesy and respect.

COVID-19 Has Made my Family Unable to Pay for College - Appeals During Coronavirus Times

Financial aid appeals are difficult during normal global conditions - how does the current COVID-19 pandemic affect financial aid appeals for the incoming freshman class?

  • If your family’s finances have been adversely affected by factors related to the coronavirus crisis, definitely submit an appeal to the schools you are considering attending. Historically, when natural disasters have affected specific regions, schools have responded by being very flexible and accommodating towards prospective students from those regions. Even though COVID-19 is a global pandemic, not regional, the expectation among financial aid experts is that colleges will make accommodations to support students whose families are experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic.

  • At this time, most financial aid offices are closed and officers are working remotely. Check school websites for updated info on the best way to contact them about appeals. In general, the appeals process is the same, but schools like UC Irvine are asking students affected by the public health crisis to initiate their appeal via email rather than phone or snail mail.

  • According to recent communication from the University of California system, students are encouraged to complete the Financial Aid Calculator available on each individual school’s website to determine if their financial aid eligibility has changed. If so, they advise you to contact the financial aid office of the specific campus for next steps.

  • Although not directly applicable to prospective students, schools such as the University of Arizona and Loyola Marymount University have set up emergency funds through crowdfunding websites to help support current students who are being affected by layoffs, furloughs, and business closures.

  • Additionally, the US Department of Education recently released an electronic announcement to financial aid offices authorizing them to use their judgment in determining if more financial aid should be awarded to currently enrolled students as a result of COVID-19. The notice also gives schools permission to continue paying students work-study wages even if they are not able to work on campus due to closures and shelter-in-place orders.

what if my appeal doesn't get approved?

If you do submit financial aid appeals, there is the possibility that you will be turned down. If this is the case, don’t be discouraged, as you still have options. Work with your family on a budget to see if there are any expenses that can be reduced (living off-campus, for example) to make the cost of attendance more manageable. Try to find part-time work in the area or a work-study job on campus. Apply for private scholarships. Consider taking out private loans (but only if you are well-educated on the risks). If there are ultimately too many financial obstacles to overcome to be able to attend your top choice school, you may have to make a hard decision.

All things considered, it’s better to try and fail with your appeal than not to try at all.


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