Financial Resource Center


Incoming Freshmen: Increase Merit-Based Scholarships Through Appeal

by Ken O'Connor / March 18th, 2011

You open up an award letter from ABC University, your first-choice school. You are excited because you really want to attend, but it is very expensive. After reading the award letter you quickly realize that the funding you need to pay for this school is not quite enough. This is a bummer as you have your sights set on this institution, but it appears financial barriers are preventing attendance. Welcome to what I call "The Middle Class Squeeze," where the children of employed parents earning moderate wages are out of financial aid eligibility but left without enough extra income to afford paying for college. As one student so eloquently put it in a recent article, "I realize that any acceptance is not a thing to be joyfully celebrated if it does not come with generous scholarships." Remember, scholarships and need-based grants are not the same: One of the biggest misconceptions that
families have is the assumption that funding will be made available to their student based on anecdotal observations and the idea that the kid will get an athletic scholarship or "something." This is a result of a lack of financial aid knowledge. In order to qualify for need-based grants, the family must meet a low threshold of household income. In order to qualify for scholarship funding, the student needs some exceptional qualities. If, after filing the FAFSA, it is revealed that no or little need-based funding is available, the next step is to try and maximize scholarship funding to pay the rest of the bill. Here are some tips on merit-based scholarship appeals.
  1. A successful appeal will need to document any merits, qualities, or distinctions that may have been overlooked during the initial application process, or were achieved after admission was already granted: During the admissions process, the student may have left out some very important information about themselves that could have made the difference for additional awards. Being a member of certain school clubs or retaining a nationally recognized academic achievement could be enough justification for a schools admissions office to grant you a little extra. Or perhaps an additional area of note was achieved after formal admission, like being recognized as an Eagle Scout. It is important to bring these things to the attention of your school so there is some kind of compelling reason to increase the funding. Just saying "I need more money" puts you on the same line as everyone else trying to go to college. To a college admin you need more money just like everyone else, what makes you different?
  2. The appeal letter itself should be brief: One page with single spacing should be enough to get your idea across. Any more than that becomes too much work. An unnecessarily long letter will be cast aside as desperate ramblings. There are, quite simply, too many students looking for more money. If it is obvious that you should receive additional scholarship funding, the appeal should be equally obvious and easy to understand.
  3. Try something different. Build a Web page: Today students have the option of wowing a college appeal committee with something better than a written page; it's called the Internet. Use the one-page appeal as a springboard to a website built by the student as additional promotion. Create a simple page that has some pictures and info about the student that communicates real life and meaning. This brings a human element that does not easily come across in written appeals. The appeal will carry much more weight when the school is reminded what this scholarship goes toward: the improvement of a student's quality of life. It is even more impactful when the student can do this through a well-presented, homemade website.
  4. Talk to the right people: Within a school, just like any business, there are a variety of positions for employees. Some have very little power to award additional funding while others can do so easily. Know the difference. Begin with financial aid counselors and admissions counselors as they will be your first go-to contact for these questions. Some are instrumental in helping you get funding, while others take up desk space and push papers unhelpfully. There will be a vice president-, director-, or assistant director-level employee that will have the last say on the approval of scholarships. You will want to meet or speak with them directly if at all possible to get to the source of funding opportunities. The worst case scenario is dealing with a dead-end counselor. If it appears the counselor is not attentive to your needs, forward an e-mail to management about your situation and pay attention to the response. If management is equally unresponsive to your needs, dump the school. This scholarship request is the difference between attending and not attending. Don't waste your time talking to the wrong people or dealing with the wrong school.
  5. Persistent follow-up: The key to good follow-up is consistency and persistence without appearing to be a wacko. I know from experience, some parents and students are too extreme in their approach and unreasonable with requests. They make sudden demands for immediate service that are simply impossible. A bad attitude will torpedo your prospects. Families that successfully appeal for more funding appear very comfortable dealing with administrators, even if they are internally harboring great apprehension. Get off on the right foot by establishing guidelines for timelines; how long do appeals take to be reviewed and responded to? About what percentage of appeals like this are approved? Who should I be following up with in regards to the appeal? Who is their supervisor?
  6. Compare options: This process should be repeated with several colleges during admissions season. This will allow for scholarship maximization, but also gives a preview to the administrative operations of the school. This is important, as well-administered schools can more easily provide educational value for students instead of unnecessary administrative tasks. Pro tip: If one college responds by awarding more funding, copy that award letter and attach it to the appeal sent to other schools. This proves that the student is in demand and colleges are competing for him/her.
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Ken O'Connor is a financial aid expert and the director of student advocacy at Learn more about credit union private student loans and college planning by visiting his blog.
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