The 10-Step Guide to a Financial Aid Appeal

Now that you’ve completed your FAFSA® and received your financial aid offer, you might feel a little disappointed. Maybe the school you had your heart set on has only offered you a little bit of aid. Or maybe there’s a small but significant gap between your cost of attendance and what you’ve budgeted to pay for your degree. The good news is that your initial financial aid offer isn’t necessarily final. You can ask your school to recalculate your need with a financial aid appeal. 

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So, what is a financial aid appeal? It’s a formal request for additional college financial aid that explains why you need the funding now. To help you make sense of the details, we put together this step-by-step guide. Here’s how to craft an outstanding appeal. 

Key takeaways 

  • If your financial aid package is insufficient and your financial situation has changed or isn’t accurately captured by FAFSA®, you can consider appealing your school’s aid decision.
  • Appeals tend to be more effective if you contact a financial aid administrator directly.
  • A good appeal should state exactly how much more financial aid you need and build a strong case for why this amount is necessary.

What is a financial aid appeal?

A financial aid appeal is a formal process students can use to dispute their school’s financial aid decision. While the eligibility requirements for an appeal differ by college, most require students to show proof of extenuating circumstances. If you can’t prove a significant recent change in your financial situation, you may still have success if you can explain that you only need a small amount of additional aid. 

Here are a few of the extenuating circumstances that tend to warrant a financial aid appeal:

  • Your parent or guardian gave birth to a child or took on a new dependent.
  • Your parent experienced a change in employment, layoff, or other significant loss of income.
  • Your marital or dependency status changed.
  • Your parents got divorced or separated.
  • You experienced the death of a parent, guardian, or other financially impactful family member.
  • You’ve recently qualified for a dependency override.
  • Child support or spousal support benefits have come to an end.
  • You believe your FAFSA® didn’t capture the specificity of your financial situation.
  • A natural disaster resulted in the loss of your family’s home, business, or property.
  • You’ve had to take on new or unexpected medical bills or dental expenses.
  • Your family is dealing with new expenses for childcare costs or now has multiple children attending college at once.
  • You received a better financial aid offer from another school.
  • Some other significant financial changes occurred between the time of your FAFSA® submission and your financial aid offer.

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How does the financial aid appeal process work? 

To be eligible for a financial aid appeal, you’ll have to have already completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) and received both your submission summary and your school’s financial aid offer. Once you have that in hand, it’s time to start the appeals process.

1. Read through your financial aid offer

Your school determines how much financial aid you’re eligible for based on your FAFSA®. They compare the school’s cost of attendance with your student aid index (SAI) and other aid you may have already received. One of the best ways to appeal a financial aid decision is to prove that the FAFSA® didn’t paint a clear picture of your financial need. 

So, your first step is to pore over your award letter. Add up the expected funding from any grants, work-study programs, or scholarships you’ve been offered. Then, subtract that sum from your school’s sticker price. What is your new cost of attendance? Is it a number you can afford? 

2. Calculate how much additional aid you might need

Now take a look at your finances. Have you and your parents decided on a number that you can each contribute to your education? If so, what is the gap between your cost of attendance and how much you’ve budgeted? 

If you only need a small amount of additional aid (say, less than $5,000), you might have success appealing your school’s aid decision. If you need more financial aid than that, consider pursuing other options, like applying for outside scholarships or private student loans. 

3. Hold off on making a deposit 

If you make any sort of deposit before you submit your appeal, you unofficially agree to your school’s original financial aid offer. By withholding the deposit, you’ll signal that your enrollment is dependent upon your financial aid. To have maximum negotiating power, don’t pay a deposit until after you’ve received an updated financial aid offer.

4. Determine how your school handles financial aid appeals

The financial aid appeal process varies from university to university. To better understand how yours works, call or email your school’s office of financial aid. (You should be able to find contact information online.) 

Keep trying until you get through to someone. Try to get the name of the financial aid administrator handling your appeal. That way, you can address your appeal letter to a real human instead of using the impersonal “To Whom it May Concern.” Also ask if there are any specific documents or appeal forms required and if they have deadlines. For many schools, the earlier you file your appeal, the better. 

5. Determine how much aid you plan to request

Before you start writing your appeal letter, calculate how much financial aid you hope to ask for. If your parents are helping you pay for school, confirm that number with them. If you’ve made a personal connection with someone in your school’s financial aid office, you may want to ask them how much the average financial aid appeal earns. Try to keep your request within that range. 

6. Gather your necessary documents 

Your school may require financial documents to prove you’re dealing with special circumstances. These could include anything from a recent tax return or pay stub, to a death certificate or divorce paperwork. Be thorough and thoughtful. The more airtight your case, the more likely it is that you’ll receive the money you need. Don’t skip this step — even if your school tells you that supporting documentation is optional. 

7. Write a financial aid appeal letter

The all-important financial appeal letter is your opportunity to personalize your appeal request and make your application stand out. Your letter should be concise, thoughtful, and professional yet passionate. You can use Going Merry’s Financial Aid Appeal Generator to write your personalized letter easily.

Address it to someone on the appeals committee and include only specific, factual information about your financial circumstances. Be sure to detail anything that’s changed since you originally submitted your FAFSA®.

If you’re an incoming first-year student, you may be able to “negotiate” with your college or university by showing them a better financial aid offer from another school. Be respectful, not heavy-handed. Also, make sure that the “competing” school is comparable in size and prestige. 

If you’re a returning student, you must demonstrate satisfactory academic progress (SAP) each year to maintain your financial aid package. If your transcript has a few holes or missteps, use your letter to explain them.

8. Complete your appeal form and any other documents

If your school requires it, complete an official appeal form. This document will likely include information about which academic year you’re applying for, how much additional aid you’re requesting, and a brief description of your circumstances. 

9. Submit your application

Once you’ve gathered your documents and completed your financial aid appeal letter, it’s time to submit. Proofread everything again. Make sure it’s all addressed to the proper people and that there are no typos. 

Some schools still require financial aid appeals to be submitted via mail. If this is the case, take extra time to make your application look professional. Print your letter on high-quality paper and sign the bottom by hand. Consider adding tracking to ensure your application gets to where it needs to go. 

If you’re submitting digitally, name each of your files clearly with your last name and document title. This will help the appeals committee keep track of everything. Add a digital signature to your appeals letter to make it look official. 

10. Follow up with a “thank you”

If you’ve submitted your appeals letter via mail, wait a week, then call your school’s office of financial aid to make sure they’ve received your documents. If you spoke with a financial aid administrator during your appeal, go the extra mile and write them a handwritten thank-you note. (An emailed note can also do in a pinch — just make sure it’s specific, gracious, and timely.) 

How to make college more affordable 

Hopefully, your financial aid appeal will net you every dollar you ask for. If it doesn’t, there are still other ways to make your education more affordable.

  • Fill out your FAFSA® as early as possible to obtain federal grants. Ideally, you’ve already filled out your FAFSA®. If not, do this immediately, because some aid is offered on a first-come first-serve basis. You’ll be automatically entered for need-based federal grants, like the Pell Grant, which renew annually and don’t need to be repaid.  
  • Complete your state’s grant application, too. Most states offer state-wide grants, which, like the FAFSA®, are need-based. 
  • Apply for scholarships. Scholarships are an excellent source of education funding because they never need to be repaid. You’ll also find awards that fit every type of student — from high school seniors to graduate students
  • Consider student loans. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, federal student loans carry low, fixed interest rates and flexible repayment plans. Once you’ve exhausted your federal options, explore private loans, too. 
  • Choose a less expensive school. Deciding where to study is an important factor in the overall cost of your higher education. To keep costs low, prioritize public, in-state schools over private colleges. You may also want to explore beginning your degree at a community college or satellite campus. These options generally have lower tuition fees. 
  • Earn college credits before you walk on campus – Take AP classes or PLA exams to gain extra college credit hours. If your high school offers them, you can also complete dual enrollment classes
  • Start saving in advance – Ask your parents to open a 529 plan, which is a state-sponsored college savings account. You or your legal guardian can contribute post-tax dollars, then watch your savings grow. When it’s time to go to college, you’ll be able to take out your earnings without paying additional taxes. 

Get matched to scholarships with Going Merry

Requesting more financial aid is a smart decision for many students. To make your request stand out, craft an appeal letter that’s professional, thorough, and supported by plenty of documentation. The financial aid office at your college or university will likely be reading a lot of applications, so the more you can do to make your appeal unique, the better. 

While you pursue additional financial aid, also consider applying for scholarships. There are more than 1.7 million college scholarships available, and some cover up to the full cost of attendance. You can access many of these awards via Going Merry, a top scholarship search platform that makes it easy to apply for scholarships online. All you have to do is create a profile with details like your GPA and demographic information, and we’ll automatically match you with awards you’re already eligible for. Sign up for Going Merry to start your scholarship search today.

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.

1 Submitting your appeal letter does not guarantee an adjustment of your financial aid award. Please consult with the relevant university’s financial aid office for additional questions.


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