03/20/2013 03:57 pm ET Updated May 20, 2013

How to Read Financial Aid Offers

We're talking about financial aid awards before we talk about admissions decisions because things can get a little crazy when colleges start telling you if you're in -- so we need to plan ahead.

Award letters can be a little dense, and no two are structured the same way, so comparing apples to apples can be challenging. Since paying for a college education is like buying a new car every year for four consecutive years, understanding what you're getting into is a must. Here's how:

Read the financial aid award letter five times Your heart is racing because you're going to follow your parent's footsteps to East Coast College, you (or your parents) have skimmed the award letter twice and you think you can afford to pay most of what you believe the letter says you'll have to pay. Not good enough.

Skimming is great, but put the letter away, do the Steve Martin dance for five hours, then pick up the letter again that night and read it again -- then again the next morning, and again over the weekend. If the letter tells you different things at different times, you do not fully understand it. That's pretty typical, but it still isn't good.

Use the tools Colleges often send along worksheets with the letter; some have more information on the web, and others simply say "Call us." This is not time not to ask for directions; use the financial GPS accessories to learn where you are, and where you think your bank account is heading.

Call anyway Even if you SWEAR you know what the letter says, use the expertise of the financial aid office to your advantage. If you don't know what to say, try this: "We received my (my child's) acceptance letter, and we're so thrilled about their getting in, I'm not sure I can completely focus on the award letter. As I read it, they'll receive five thousand in grants we don't have to pay back, they'll work 8 hours a week at an on-campus job, and there's twelve hundred dollars in student loans. Is that right?"

As Elmer Fudd would say, be vewwy vewwy quiet Once you tell the financial aid office what you see, let them talk. It's not uncommon for aid officers to bring up your child's file and find a better way to package the aid, or discover new money that's just become available. They are good at their job, and they want to help you -- listen, and let them.

Update them Your financial picture may have changed dramatically since you filled out the forms two months ago -- it happens all the time. Be sure the college knows this, and be ready to send documentation to support your claims. Nothing may change, but the only way something good might happen is if you tell them.