Understanding Your Financial Aid Letters

financial aid questions

The acceptance letters are rolling in! Like the Oscars and Golden Globes, it’s “award season!” It’s a happy time. But tempering that time is the price tag that comes up after those “yes” letters. How do you even start to read those financial aid letters?

Sallie Mae, a partner of Smart College Visit, decoded financial aid letters in their “Sallie Mae University” series on Tuesday, March 19 Facebook Live discussion.  Host Winnie Sun, managing director and founding partner of Sun Group Wealth Partners, a trusted financial consulting firm, spoke with “The Scholarship Shark” and college consultant Pam Andrews. Pam works with students and families to tailor their high school career and applications to get into first-choice colleges.

All Those Terms

Pam and Winnie start out by explaining that, no matter the format, financial aid letters break down the “COA” or cost of attendance, which isn’t just the tuition and room and board, but estimated costs like books and travel too. They will then list out the funds available to you to apply to those costs, like grants, scholarships, loans, and work study.

The big one? “Gift aid,” specifically grants and scholarships, are funds that do not need to be paid back to the university or the government, or private companies. “We LOVE gift aid,” laughs Pam and Winnie. “Bring on the gift aid!”

“Self-help aid” is a combination of work study, and various loans, including . “It’s important to understand the terms of scholarships, and know that your cost of attendance is going to rise,” reminds Pam. “You’re awarded a dollar amount for work study, but you have to apply for those jobs. They’re not automatic.”


Pam answers a question from a Facebook Live audience member: Are some scholarships are not renewable? Typically, she says, as long as you continue to meet the eligibility requirements and the full-time status rules, most scholarships are renewable. “It’s important to know what you need to do every year to keep it,” says Pam. Again, you have to read the fine print!

Most important to keep in mind? “Every letter is different. There is no standard format. Some will even have on check boxes to accept or decline the various awards, and below that, GPA requirements needed. You have to read them very carefully and look up terms you may not be familiar with.”

Watch the Sallie Mae “Understanding Your Financial Aid Award” Facebook Live above. Smart College Visit wants to hear from you! What would you like to see in this series? Comment on our Facebook post and let us know.

You’re welcome to find out more about The Scholarship Shark Pam at her website, and learn more about Sallie Mae as well.

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