Comparing Your Award Letters – GradPlan

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Comparing Your Award Letters

Learn how to view and compare your financial aid award letters

You’ve researched Financial Aid, finished your aid application and have been accepted to a college you are considering…CONGRATS!!

Now suddenly, letters and emails begin to arrive from the schools that accepted you containing “financial aid award offers.” It’s a lot of numbers, dollar signs, and words you may not be familiar with, and each college’s letter is slightly different. How do you make sense of it all, and more importantly, how do you decide which award offer is the best one? You can get started by comparing your offers…

How Do I Compare Award Letters?

When you completed your financial aid application, you were given the option to list schools to send your application to. When you get accepted to these schools they will each send you a financial aid award letter.

Read your offer letter(s) carefully. Each school’s financial aid award letter will notify you of the types of aid the government and the college(s) are offering you (i.e. loans, grants, scholarships), and the award amount for each type. They will also likely inform you of tuition costs for that school.

Here is a step-by-step process you can use to compare the different award letters you receive and to determine the best option for you.

Find Your Financial Aid Award Letters

Colleges will send you an award letter through traditional mail, email you with a notification to view your award online, or both!


Mail: Check your mailbox regularly. If you receive a financial aid award letter through the mail, pay attention to how the college wants you to reply. They may direct you to go online, or they may include an envelope to send a signed acceptance form back.


Online: You will either receive an email with your award letter, or you will be directed to log into your student portal and go to your financial aid page to locate your award package.


We recommend checking the financial aid section of your student portal regularly throughout the semester. This will help you stay up-to-date on new scholarship opportunities, announcements and upcoming deadlines.

Make a Decision on Financial Aid

This is going to involve a little math, so consider using a comparison tool to make it a little easier. Input the costs of your school and your financial aid offer to calculate the cost to you after financial aid is applied.

Determine Total Cost for Each School

Add together the tuition and fees to determine the school’s total cost. Keep in mind that if you’re living on or off-campus, it can change the total. And, don’t forget about other cost like textbooks and supplies once you start college.

Subtract each type of financial aid award from the total cost of the school’s tuition starting with any FREE money you receive (grants and scholarships). If the school is affordable after applying gift aid alone, it’s a great financial fit for you.

TIP! If the school isn’t affordable after applying your gift aid, check how much the school costs after applying student loans. Remember you can take out all or just a portion of the loans that you’re offered. If the school still feels unaffordable after applying student loans, it might not be a good financial fit. But…before ruling this school out, consider appealing your award letter.

Compare College Costs

First determine the anticipated total cost by adding the known expense of tuition, housing, etc. to an estimate of the total amount of costs that might not be visible via your award letter, such as textbooks or the cost of travel to-and-from campus. For a full load of classes, you can anticipate textbook/supply costs between $300-$500 per semester or get free textbooks here.

Here’s a sample of what anticipated total cost might look like:

Anticipated Expense
Example Cost for the Year
Housing/Meal Plan
Transportation to-and-from campus
School Supplies
Clothing, hygiene products
Social Club Dues (Spanish Club, Sorority, etc.)
Total Anticipated Cost for 1 Year of College:

If you do this process for each college you are considering you will notice that the anticipated total cost is different from each one.

Once you have your anticipated total costs for each school, then apply the financial aid awards you are being offered and subtract those from the anticipated total cost. Whatever amount is left over will be the cost you can expect for that college for one year.


$35,900 (Anticipated total cost) – $29,000 in financial aid (grants + scholarships + loans) = $6,900 in cost to you for one year


If you do this process and compare the cost of each school after financial aid is applied to the anticipated total cost, rather than just comparing the amount of financial aid you’re offered from each school, you might be surprised which school ends up being the most affordable for you.

Tip! Rank the schools you are considering based on affordability. Attending a school that is a good financial fit has proven to be one of the most influential factors in helping a young person graduate college. Here are the other key considerations.

Get Support

The financial aid process can be confusing. That’s why every school has a financial aid office to help you. If you’re feeling lost, list your questions, then call or email the financial aid office at each college you’re considering and ask your questions.

Remember! There are no dumb questions. But if you’re not sure what to ask, here are some example questions:

  • Can you explain my financial aid award letter to me?
  • Will I get this amount of financial aid every year?
  • What is the difference between a subsidized and an unsubsidized loan?
  • How much will I have to pay in my first year if I do accept the student loans?
  • I haven’t heard of ______ before. Can you explain what that is?

Getting a handle on financial aid can be frustrating at times, but remember you’re not alone. Keep asking questions until you understand and reach out to your financial aid office, college advisor, or a trusted adult for support. You’ve got this!

Accept Your Package

Now that you know how to compare your financial aid awards, you are ready to make a decision and accept one of the packages. View our Accepting your Financial Aid Package resource page to learn how to do this.

Looking for more help? 

You can find more information about FAFSA, student loans, and budgeting your money on our Financials page. Also consider listening to this 4 minute NPR clip about other students who are trying to compare college costs. Or you can read the article here.

Recommended Resources


Financial Aid

"Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today."

Malcolm X, human rights activist