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Articles / Applying to College / Appealing Merit Aid Awards

Appealing Merit Aid Awards

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Dec. 23, 2014

Question: My son has received acceptance to a number of schools (early action).  All but one have offered him scholarship dollars.  They are still quite expensive.  Is it appropriate to ask if they can improve on the offer? If so, how/when do you ask? Thank you

Sometimes it is possible to cajole college officials into offering more aid. But, as you do so, you will have to walk the fine line between being polite and being persistent.

Your odds will be greatest at those colleges where your son is an especially strong candidate.  At some schools, merit scholarships are controlled by the financial aid office and, at others, by the admission office. So you should start your appeal with the latter, although you may be quickly directed to financial aid. Here’s how to proceed:

  1. Make an appointment to speak to an admission officer, explaining that you want to discuss your son’s merit grant. As noted above, you may be directed to the financial aid office instead.  Unless you live within a reasonable drive of the college in question, this “meeting” will take place on the phone.

  1. You should be prepared to give the college a specific amount of money that you need. It’s not wise to simply say, “This won’t work as is. We need more.” Instead, you should determine how much more you require and request this amount.

  1. If possible, explain exactly why the current aid award won’t work.  You should have figures in front of you to back up this claim … rent or mortgage costs, utilities, car payments, health insurance or medical expenses, etc. … i.e., anything reasonable that eats into your income and assets (i.e., not the round-the-world second-honeymoon cruise that you’re booking as soon as Junior hits the dorm room!)

  1. Because merit awards are often heavily based on GPA and standardized test scores, if your son has gone up significantly in either area since submitting his application, be sure to say so.

  1. If your son has been awarded more money by another college with roughly comparable admission standards, you may be able to use this other grant to leverage an increase at similar schools.  If a less selective college has offered your son more money, the leverage ploy probably won’t get you very far, but if a more selective college … or a “competitor college” … has offered a bigger scholarship, your appeal may have some oomph. So it’s fine to mention other merit awards that might lure your son elsewhere if this college won’t cough up.

Don’t take “no” for an answer right off the bat. Keep plugging. But you also must act grateful for every crumb that’s been tossed your way so far and never entitled to more. As I pointed out at the start, this line can be very narrow.

Finally, these are merit awards that your son has received thus far. Has he also applied for need-based financial aid? If you qualify for need-based aid, you probably won’t get a financial aid “package” until the spring, once you’ve submitted your FAFSA and any other required forms.  For those students who qualify for financial aid, the merit grant may be just the tip of the iceberg and more money could be heading your way.

If your son did apply for need-based aid, you can hold off on your appeal until you see how you do in that department. But if you’re not expecting any need-based assistance, you can launch your merit-aid appeal right after the holidays. Admission and financial aid officers are going to be flat out with work from January through May, so there’s really not a “better” time to do this. Thus, you might as well get started early, when college budgets may still be a little flusher than they’ll be in the spring.


Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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