Deciding which colleges to apply to is life changing. And it can be overwhelming! Thinking about academics and location and the social elements all matter. But one of the biggest decisions is cost. As you consider your top universities, the FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid) is the key to helping you afford the college of your choice.


It all sounds great, right?! BUT the FAFSA confuses the best and brightest. Here are a few tips to help you decode the FAFSA.


  • Financial aid packages differ from college to college.

If you have indicated on your FAFSA application the colleges you applied to, the schools you have been accepted to will send you a financial award package following your acceptance letter.

Some universities might send it to you electronically and others might send it via snail mail. The formatting and layout may look different and be worded differently which can be very confusing. Here are a few key points to remember when you are looking over all of your financial aid letters.


  • Your FAFSA award will not change in amount, but each school might have additional institutional specific monies to offer you. Don’t be alarmed if the bottom line number is different.
  • Follow a simple formula to calculate the cost and help you receive with each aid package that comes your way:
    1. Add up all expenses (tuition, books, room and board, additional class fees, transportation expenses)
    2. Subtract all monies offered (scholarships, grants, loans)
    3. This gives you your net cost for each school
  • Navigating all of the abbreviations.

There are all sorts of abbreviations on the FAFSA. Don’t worry, we have your cheat sheet here!


  1. COA – cost of attendance
  2. SAR – student aid report
  3. EFC – expected family contribution
  4. Sub – subsidized loan (the federal government pays the interest on the loan while you are in school; available only to undergrad students)
  5. Unsub – unsubsidized loan (the borrower is responsible for all the interest; available for both graduate and undergraduates)
  6. L or LN – loan


  • Uncooperative parents?

Unfortunately, some students may have to contend with uncooperative parents for a myriad of reasons. Your parents (if you are still considered a dependent) are a big part of how your financial aid package is calculated.

If you have a parent who is not helping you out, enlist the aid of your school(s) financial aid officer assigned to you. They will help you navigate the FAFSA, as it now has an option to list uncooperative parents.


  1. What in the world does the EFC code mean?

EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is a way to give value to your family’s income sources (taxed and untaxed). It provides the government a fair way to look at each students need and evaluate monies that can be allocated through loans and Pell grants.


  • Understand your budget and bottom line costs as you compare packages.

College is expensive, and some schools cost more than others. It is important to keep in mind the cost of all four years at any given university. Your FAFSA award is on an annual basis, and it could go down for a variety of reasons (parent’s change in income, change in assets, etc.).

Some colleges also practice the frontloading of grants, so your freshman aid package is significantly higher than subsequent years. Ask each university you are considering, if they frontload aid? It will help in your overall financial planning.

Recommended For You:

How to Budget in College

  • What about siblings in college?

Many families often have multiple members in college at the same time. The FAFSA and the university will take this into account through the EFC (Expected Family Contribution), as it makes a difference in what a family can contribute.


  • What if you need to make a change on your application?

Making a change on the application is dependent on what you need to change. If you made an error on finances, social security numbers, or due to an unforseen cirumstance and your saving have been depleted, you will need to seek advice from your school’s financial aid officer. They can help you navigate these issues.

However, you can easily update any contact information on your application online by simply logging in and updating. You also need to make any updates if there is a change in your dependency status or if there is a change in the number of members in your household or number of college students in your household.


  • What if you get outside scholarships or grants?

If you apply to and receive grants or scholarships outside of your institution or the FAFSA, it can impact your overall financial aid. If they add up to more than $300 of your calculated need, the federal government will ask your school to reduce the amount of your need-based aid.


  • Not all that money is guaranteed.

It can be exciting to receive your financial aid package and have a larger than expected award. Keep in mind your aid package includes all forms of aid including loans and work study. The loans have to be paid back at some point, and work study means you have to work at your college to earn that aid. If you don’t find a work study position and complete the hours, you will not get the full money shown on your award letter.


  • When will you hear something?

After completing your FAFSA, you will receive a SAR (student aid report) within three days to three weeks. The SAR will not determine the amount of your financial aid award, this is a summary of what you reported. Be sure to look it over completely and make sure there are no mistakes.

Your indicated schools will receive your FAFSA aid eligibility, and each school will send you an award package with a combination of their offers and your federal and state offers.


Post Your Thoughts

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: