Admission Letters vs. Financial Aid Awards: What Parents Need to Know 

Guest Blog Post from Peg Keough, College Aid Pro – Director of Education

I’ve worked with college-bound families for many years now. Some of the most common questions I hear from parents are about the different letters and documents they receive after their child gets accepted to college. In the midst of the exciting news, there can be confusion around what each piece of mail actually means. Let me break it down for you. The Fun Part – The Admission Letter

When those big envelopes or emails start rolling in, that’s when the real fun begins! The first document you’re likely to receive is the admission letter from the college’s Office of Admissions. This letter essentially says “Congratulations, you’re in!” It’s the initial confirmation that your hard work paid off and you’ve been accepted as a new student for the upcoming year.

Some admission letters may also mention merit-based scholarships that the college is awarding you upfront based on your outstanding academics or talents. For example, the letter might state: “Congratulations, you’ve been admitted and received a $100,000 Provost Scholarship.” This means the college is committing $25,000 per year toward your educational costs simply for being a high-achieving student.

The Key Document – The Financial Aid Award Letter

While an admission letter is certainly exciting, the real meat of the matter comes in a separate document from the Office of Financial Aid – the financial aid award letter. This is the comprehensive overview of exactly what the university is offering you in terms of financing your education.

A well-constructed award letter should lay out the full cost of attendance (COA), including a breakdown of tuition, fees, room and board, books, travel, and personal expenses. It will then list out all the forms of financial aid you’re being awarded, including:

• Merit scholarships (like the Provost Scholarship mentioned in the admission letter)
• Need-based grants
• Federal direct student loans (you’ll receive these by submitting the FAFSA)
• Work-study opportunities
• University loans or other financing options

The award letter will show your aid package semester-by-semester or quarter-by-quarter, depending on the school’s calendar. This allows you to clearly see your total costs balanced against your total aid for each period.

One of the giveaways that you’re looking at a true financial aid award letter is the presence of the federal direct student loans. An admission letter won’t ever include these loan amounts. The award letter should also state that it’s coming directly from the Office of Financial Aid.

Please keep in mind that there are over 900 versions of financial aid award letters so ideally your financial aid award letters will contain all the information I have shared, but don’t be surprised if some of the information is missing. If you need additional information, don’t be shy about reaching out to the colleges.

What to Do With Your Award Letters

Once you have your financial aid award letters from all the schools your child was accepted to, that’s when the real comparison work begins. My advice? Lay them all out side-by-side, printing out the PDFs if needed. Or better yet, upload them into a tool like MyCAP that’s designed for easy cost transparency.

With MyCAP from CollegeAidPro, you can quickly see an apples-to-apples comparison of the total costs, net costs, loan amounts, and more across all your award letters. This makes it much easier to determine which college is the best financial fit before making your final decision.

Don’t Confuse Admission for the Final Award

While getting that initial acceptance letter is a major milestone to celebrate, don’t mistake it for your full financial aid package. The admission letters are just the first step, with the real game-changing information coming later in the official award letters from the financial aid offices.

If you’ve been accepted but haven’t received a distinct award letter listing out costs and aid sources, reach out to the college’s financial aid office. The letter may have been mailed separately, or it could be available for download on the student portal you’ll gain access to as an admitted student.

Deciding where to attend college is one of life’s biggest financial decisions. By clearly understanding the difference between admission letters and comprehensive aid awards, you’ll be equipped to make the best choice for your family’s needs.

Peg Keough is a college financial planner who specializes in working with parents who have college-bound high school kids. Through her guidance, parents take a proactive role in creating a comprehensive college funding plan to maximize financial aid and discounts on the cost of college.