All articles

Appealing Financial Aid and Merit Scholarships

Appealing Financial Aid and Merit Scholarships


Knowing how to appeal merit scholarships and need-based financial aid awards could ultimately save you thousands of dollars. Here are 10 things that you need to know about appealing financial aid awards and merit scholarships.

1. You don’t always need a compelling reason to appeal.

Conventional wisdom says that you must have an excellent reason to successfully appeal a disappointing financial aid award, such as a job loss, a death, a divorce, large medical bills or other special circumstances. That’s not always true.

Whether a college will provide more need-based aid or sweeten a merit scholarship depends on how much the institution wants you. Another potential factor is how a university’s freshman deposits are faring. If the number of high school seniors enrolling for the fall isn’t meeting expectations, a college could be more likely to improve your offer.

A former president of a Midwestern university once told me that his institution would give an accepted student an extra $2,000 or $3,000 for each year for all sorts of dubious reasons if enrollment numbers were lagging. He recalled, for instance, that the university awarded a student a total of $8,000 more aid after she said that her aunt was an alumna.

Still, you are more likely to be successful in appealing for more financial aid (as opposed to merit aid) if your family is affected by special circumstances. 

2. The appeal can continue after the deposit deadline.

Colleges don’t like to talk about this, but some of them do try to lure students who have committed to other institutions during the spring and summer months. This practice, by the way, is ethically sketchy. You might be able to extract a better price from a college past the spring deposit deadline, or use the offer as leverage for a better deal with the college that you plan to attend.

3. Appealing for merit aid will sometimes be a non-starter.

Consider this scenario: your family is too affluent to qualify for need-based aid, so you apply for merit scholarships. Your favorite college accepted you, but you didn’t get a merit scholarship and now face the prospects of paying full price.

Some colleges and universities maintain a firm policy of not entertaining appeals for merit awards, but many will actually consider these appeals. There are elite schools, such as the Ivy League, MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech, Amherst, Middlebury and Swarthmore that don't award merit scholarships. So don't appeal to schools like these.

4. Ask how your home equity impacted your aid.

The vast majority of colleges and universities do not consider the equity in your primary home at all. Institutions that use the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, however, require that you share the value of your home equity and that can hurt your chances for need-based financial aid.

You can appeal a college’s use of your home equity and ask the institution to limit the damage it would cause to an award.

5. Know your Expected Family Contribution.

You can’t determine if an award is good unless you know your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC, a dollar amount, represents what you are expected to pay for one year of college. The higher your assets and income, the higher your EFC and the lower your chances for need-based aid.

Example: Your financial need, after subtracting your EFC, is $30,000 and the school is only offering $10,000 in financial aid. That’s a poor award.

Your EFC should be on your award letter and if it isn’t, ask the institution for this figure.

6. Research a college’s aid practices.

Some universities provide excellent financial aid and many do not. So it makes sense to compare an award with the previous awards in years' past. You can find the average merit and financial aid awards for a college or university on the College Board’s website.

7. Don’t use the word negotiate.

Admission staff and financial aid administrators prefer that families accept their first offers, but that’s not realistic. Don’t antagonize the people who are giving you money by using the word negotiate.

8. Back up your appeal with details.

It’s a non-starter to complain to admissions officers that their colleges are too expensive. Instead, be as detailed as possible when asking for more financial assistance. If you struggled with high medical bills, for example, provide copies of the bills. If a parent was laid off, show proof. Independent, third-party documentation is ideal.

9. Share competing offers.

You will often be in a better position to squeeze more money out of a college if you can prove that you possess better offers. Tell your contact person and offer to send the competing offers in an email.

I had a friend do that when her daughter’s top school made an offer a few thousand dollars lower than other universities. She shared the other awards and the university matched the highest offer.

10. Be proactive.

If the financial aid application doesn’t adequately convey your financial situation, speak up before you receive an award letter. For instance, you might have large medical bills or you might have lost your job. Ideally, you will explain your situation before they review your application.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

Create a free Cappex account to find, finance, and attend the college that’s right for you Get Started Now