March Financial Aid Checklist for Seniors

March is a big month for seniors in more ways than one. Not only will most admission decisions be released this month, but students will also be evaluating their financial aid awards. This is one of the last steps in your college admission process. Even though we hope you will be celebrating and contemplating your choices, you will also need to be focused and diligent about evaluating those offers—both with regard to where you will spend the next four years and also how you will pay for them. College advisor Alice Kleeman is back with lots of terrific advice for students and families about what they should be doing this month.


*             Soon after you filed your FAFSA, you should have received your Student Aid Report (SAR) via email or, if you did not provide an email address, via snail mail.  The SAR summarizes the information your provided on the FAFSA and provides the Expected Family Contribution. If you do not receive the SAR within three to five days of filing the FAFSA, check the status of your application by going to the "FAFSA on the Web" home page or calling the Federal Student Aid Information Center for assistance at 1-800-4FED-AID.

•             Note the Data Release Number (DRN) on your SAR. The DRN is a four-digit number assigned to your application by Federal Student Aid. It is printed on the upper right corner of the paper Student Aid Report (SAR), in the upper right corner on the electronic SAR, and on your confirmation page. This number may be used to make changes to your FAFSA, such as a new phone number,  via their customer service representatives, or shared with the financial aid offices of colleges that want to access your FAFSA information electronically.

*             Review your SAR. If it requires corrections, make them and resubmit. If you and your parents had not filed your 2012 tax forms at the time you submitted the FAFSA and used estimated amounts, you must now correct the SAR to reflect the actual amounts reported when you and/or your parents filed your income tax forms.

*             If your SAR or a college to which you've applied notifies you that you have been "selected for verification," you will need to provide more information, such as income tax forms. Check with your colleges to find out what information they will require for this process and submit the information as soon as possible. Verification is a process to confirm the accuracy of the information provided in your application for financial aid. The Department of Education selects one in three FAFSA forms for verification. Most selections are random, but if the information you submitted was inconsistent or incomplete, your FAFSA may be selected, as well.

*             As you receive financial aid offers (also called "financial aid packages" or "financial aid award letters") from the colleges that admit you, review these offers carefully. Determine how much you have been awarded in grants and loans. Note the proportion of loans to grants—and the actual amount your family will pay. Figure out whether the grants are for one year or can be renewed. If you have questions, check with your high school college counselor or the college financial aid office!

*             There is no standard financial aid offer or award letter format. Each college has its own way of reporting and itemizing your aid package. This can make it difficult to understand which combination of price and student aid award is best from offer to offer. Be a wise consumer! Make sure you understand what is being offered and what you are accepting.

*             The College Board has a useful tool that will help you to compare financial aid awards from different colleges. You can access that here. You will also find a step-by-step explanation of how to evaluate and compare aid packages in Chapter 16, "Financial Aid", in College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.

*             If you do receive notification of admission this month, including a financial aid award, allow yourself time to make a decision. Remember May 1 is the National Candidates Reply Date. Pay attention to any deadlines outlined in your acceptance or aid award. But don't get so excited that you feel you need to respond before you have all the important information from every college to which you've applied.

*             Continue to apply for private scholarships. Let your high school know about any awards you have received—your school will want to know if it hosts an Awards Night.

*             If you receive a private scholarship, you must inform the colleges.  Check with the schools to which you’ve applied about how scholarships from private groups and organizations -- known as “outside awards" --  might impact the calculation of your financial aid award. Different colleges calculate their impact differently. For example, some colleges count half an outside award toward grant aid and half toward student self-help, lowering the student's work-study or loan amount by the equivalent of half the outside award. Others count the entire outside award against loans and work-study. Still others count the entire outside award against institutional grant aid. If you feel that a college has been unfair in reducing your grant aid because you’ve received an outside scholarship, remember that colleges have limited funding and need to distribute it to those with the most need. If your need has suddenly changed, some colleges will take that into account and use the funds to help students with more need.

*             Good luck! You're almost there…


Stay tuned to the blog for more about evaluating financial aid awards and handling decision season in general!


Alice Kleeman has served as the college advisor for 18 years in the College and Career Center of Menlo- Atherton High School, a public high school of 2,000 students in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also teaches each summer on the faculty of the College Board’s Summer Admission Institute for new admission officers.

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Excellent tips, thank you! Sharing and tweeting! :)

Great points to remember at this time of the year.

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