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How to write a financial aid appeal letter

The following article is from U.S. News and World Report

Successful Financial aid appeals are rare, experts say. But crafting a good financial aid appeal letter can give students the best chance of getting more money for college.

After receiving an award letter, students may be able to appeal the financial aid package they were given by a specific college. Not all students find themselves in a circumstance that merits writing an appeal letter to request more financial aid, and in some situations appealing could even lower the amount of aid they receive.

But Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research for Savingforcollege.com, says more awareness is needed about appeals.

"Too often families think of the financial aid award letter as being set in stone and not subject to appeal," he says. "The first sign there might be an issue is if the financial aid offer is not merely a harsh assessment of your ability to pay, but an impossible assessment. Chances are there is some bit of information the financial aid office was unaware of when they calculated your financial aid package."

In those cases, families should consider appealing the financial aid offer, he says, noting that an appeal letter should be written by a parent if the student is considered a dependent.

Read: Why Your College Financial Aid Letter May Be Misleading.

Whatever the circumstance, students and their parents typically must demonstrate to financial aid administrators a significant change in their ability to pay for college by providing proof or new information. For families who determine an appeal is the best route, here are tips on how to write a successful financial aid appeal letter:

  • Start by calling the financial aid office.
  • Include specific examples.
  • Gather documentation.
  • Be respectful and honest, and keep it short.
  • Submit the financial aid appeal letter the right way.

Start by Calling the Financial Aid Office

The appeal process can vary across colleges. Some require students to fill out a form in addition to writing an appeal letter, while others don't require a letter at all. For this reason, experts recommend students call the target school's financial aid office before taking any steps toward an appeal.

But students and families should plan to do more than just make a phone call, experts say. A physical letter can be powerful.

"There's a formal process if the student is asking to have their eligibility for aid re-evaluated, because you have to have a reason to be re-evaluated," says Abril Hunt, manager of outreach and financial literacy for Educational Credit Management Corp., a nonprofit based in Minneapolis that aims to promote financial literacy and student success in higher education.

Include Specific Examples

No two financial aid circumstances are the same. Even in situations when two families have a similar event occur that inhibits their ability to pay for college, Kantrowitz says they shouldn't expect the same outcome from an appeal. Colleges and financial aid administrators have significant flexibility in deciding how to respond to appeals.

"Schools are able to practice what is called professional judgment," says Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

"This is a process that we think works pretty well right now, and we like the flexibility schools have. If you made it a little more standardized or rigid, you'd run the risk of it being too one size fits all, and there are so, so many different scenarios in which students might appeal or ask for professional judgment to be done. So we think that's in the hands of the financial aid office and the student," she says.

The way families present their financial circumstances can affect the result of an appeal. Experts say parents should list specific circumstances that have an impact on their ability to pay for college in their appeal letters, possibly in a bulleted list. Using a clear bulleted list can help quickly convey the facts of a family's situation in a way that is digestible for financial aid administrators and easy to connect to supporting documentation.

Some of the most common situations that may warrant an appeal are if a parent dies or loses his or her job; if parents get a divorce; if child support has ended; in cases of significant natural disasters that result in losses for the family; in the case of significant medical or dental expenses; if the student has a special needs family member or cares for a special needs child; or if the estimate for commuting and other educational costs is significantly lower than the actual costs, Kantrowitz says.

Families should also explain how the specific circumstance has affected their ability to pay.

The contents of the letter should be different depending on whether the family is hoping to get more need-based or more merit-based aid. If the aid is based on merit, it might be helpful to include more information about a student's GPA and accomplishments, but if it is strictly need-based, experts say that information is unnecessary.

See: 12 Colleges That Give Merit Aid to the Most Students.

Gather Documentation

Providing proof of the specific circumstances listed in the appeal is critical, experts say. If the appeal letter doesn't include any documentation, students and families can expect to get a response from the financial aid office asking for it.

The best kind of documentation families can provide is a document from a third-party source, Kantrowitz says. An example of a good document to include might be a paid medical bill or pay stubs and W-2s showing a decrease in income.

Letters from other sources can also be included, but those from family members may not carry the same weight as one from an outside source with knowledge of the family's financial situation, such as an insurance agent or health professional who can speak to the family's situation.

"It's not just narrative," Hunt says. "You need something in writing to back it up. They won't take your word for it; they need to have some proof of the situation changing or the information being inaccurately reported."

Hunt says if other colleges have offered more generous packages, copies of those offers can be included with the appeal letter.

Read: How to Get the Most Generous Financial Aid Package From Your College.

Be Respectful and Honest, and Keep it Short

An appeal letter should include other information beyond specific examples of financial changes or hardships. A parent should thank the financial aid office for its consideration, and write briefly about the student's excitement to attend the institution.

Experts say families should never lie about their financial need or treat the process like a negotiation.

While the financial aid appeal letter should include specific details, Kantorwitz warns: "Don't tell them your entire life story."

For an appeal of need-based financial aid, writing a long narrative or including too many details are unlikely to help a student's chances. The most important elements of the letter, experts say, are often the examples and corresponding proof.

"Processors really don't have the time to read long letters like that, so I would say be succinct and to the point." Hunt says. "Stick to the facts."

In his book "How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid," Kantrowitz provides examples of good and bad financial aid appeal letters. Here's an example of what he says a good appeal letter written by a parent might look like:

"Dear Director of Financial Aid,

I am very excited that my daughter, [name of daughter], has been accepted by such a prestigious university. I am proud of her accomplishments.

Unfortunately, there are some unusual aspects of our family's finances that make it difficult for my daughter to afford to enroll, despite your generous financial aid offer.

* I am a single parent, raising three daughters on my own. My husband died last year, after a long battle with cancer.

* Our family income has decreased significantly in the last two years. Besides the loss of my husband's income, I was laid off by my employer and had to accept a job at a much lower salary after six months on unemployment. Also, my income two years ago included a big one-time bonus that obviously will not be repeated.

* I am still making payments on a significant amount of medical debt. The insurance company did not cover all of the costs of my husband's cancer treatment because it included therapies that were classified as experimental by the insurance company. The COBRA payments after my husband lost his job because of the cancer were and remain very high. We also liquidated our small retirement plans to cover the deductibles and co-pays.

* My daughter's Social Security survivor's benefits end next year when she turns 18.

* My daughter's younger siblings are enrolled at a private high school. Although the school has helped with a scholarship after my husband's death, it doesn't cover full tuition. I thought about sending them to public school because the expense is no longer affordable, but I don't have the heart to do that to them after they lost their father. I don't want them to lose their friends. Plus, our reasons for sending them to a private school are still valid.

I have enclosed copies of documentation of these circumstances, a copy of my pay stubs before and after the job change, a copy of the unemployment benefits, a copy of my husband's death certificate, copies of our medical bills and a copy of this year's federal income tax return.

Your university is my daughter's first choice. I hope you will provide her with more financial aid, so she can afford to enroll at your fine institution. I am sure she will thrive there.

Thank you for your time and consideration."

Submit the Financial Aid Appeal Letter the Right Way

Parents should submit the appeal letter as soon as possible, Kantrowitz says. While experts say it is rare for a student to receive financial aid before being admitted to an institution, Kantrowitz says in most cases parents should submit an appeal letter early, even if financial aid administrators won't respond to it until the student is admitted.

The letter should be mailed, ideally through certified mail that includes delivery confirmation, to the financial aid office in most cases, Kantrowitz says. Parents should confirm the correct address with the institution's financial aid office.

However, families who don't have clear changes to their financial situation but feel they could still get more financial aid through an appeal may want to wait to send the letter, Hunt says.

"They might want to wait until the first round of award letters, after mid-June," Hunt says. "Then the school will have a better idea of what the enrollment numbers will be. And if the school is behind in their enrollment numbers they might be more likely to find an extra couple thousand dollars for the student in order to get their enrollment numbers up."

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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