05/03/2011 06:47 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2011

Unigo Expert Network: Making Sense of Financial Aid Packages

We've witnessed many students and their families ecstatic to see their financial aid award offer arrive in the mail only to immediately go silent when they actually open it and see that it looks like a foreign language. Not to worry! Follow these tips to get the most out of your financial aid packages.

This week's question asks:

"I just got my financial aid package and don't know what to make of it. What are some terms I should know, things I should look for, or tips and tricks to maximize my aid?"

See answers from the VP of The College Board, Dean of Admissions at University of Illinois, and ask your own questions at

Peter Brass"A complete, honest and comprehensive application is invaluable" It is critical that the student and parents provide a complete, honest and comprehensive report on the family's financial circumstances. It is remarkable the number of students who submit their applications for financial aid with critical pieces of information missing. For example, parental financial support for immediate and extended family members, siblings and grandparents most commonly, is sometimes omitted or downplayed and the resulting financial offer to the student of a lesser value than would otherwise be the case. Take the necessary time to review all demands on family resources so your college of choice has an accurate picture of your need. When an offer arrives review it. If you have omitted some significant items, or if financial circumstances have changed since your original application, then provide that information to the college immediately and request reconsideration. You might be very pleasantly surprised by the response.

- Peter Brass - Director of Student Services & University Adviser, St. John's Ravenscourt School

[See explanations of every type of financial aid]

Martha Merrill"Use this formula to make sure you don't miss anything!" Each college should provide to you the annual cost of education. This will include "billable expenses" i.e. tuition, room, board and fees and indirect costs such as books, supplies, travel, and personal expenses. Your aid award should list grants and/or scholarships which do not need to be repaid. You will need to subtract your grants/scholarships from the "billable expenses" to determine what your family will be expected to pay to the college. Compare this amount to other awards from like colleges. The goal is to determine what college fits into your academic aspirations and your family's financial goals. Your award may also include student loans and an offer of student employment. Those loan proceeds can be applied to the bill, but they will have to be paid back sometime in the future.

- Martha Merrill - Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid, Connecticut College

[Learn how to calculate the actual cost of your dream college]

Betsy Morgan"Mind the Gap!" One of the biggest mistakes that many college bound families make is to focus solely on the grand total of the award, without carefully considering its individual components. "They gave me the most money," say many students when asked why they chose a particular institution. But viewing your financial aid package in this way can be deceiving. Instead, think about long-range affordability. Start with the cost of attendance: tuition, room and board, and expenses. Then deduct out any grants, scholarships or work-study awarded - this is gift aid that you don't have to pay back. The resulting number is what you should really consider your "award." Finally, calculate the gap between this "award" amount and the amount that your family realistically can afford. Some schools will offer you loans and others will "gap" you (not meet 100% of your EFC). Regardless, you want to mind the gap and keep that number as small as possible, both for your family's current financial stability, as well as your future debt load.

- Betsy Morgan - Founder, College Matters LLC

[See all 30 Expert Answers to this question]

Was your financial aid package more or less than you thought it would be? How did you make up the difference?

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