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Last Updated On: May 17th, 2020

If you are a top student and you play the financial aid game right, you could end up with multiple sources of free money: a needs-based grant, a merit scholarship from the school, and/or outside scholarships. The way your school combines these aid sources can be more important than the numbers themselves. It’s important to find out how schools apply your aid money, especially if you earn acceptance and aid at multiple schools.

Advanced Combinatrics: Needs-Based, Merit-Based, and Outside Scholarships

If your family has no financial need, the math is simple: your merit scholarship and any outside scholarships will reduce your costs. If you’re also receiving need-based aid, however, the school can simply replace your needs-based aid with this money. Let’s say a student would receive a $20,000 needs-based grant from his dream school, but he earns a $10,000 merit scholarship and also wins $10,000 in an outside scholarship competition. The school is allowed to simply replace the $20,000 needs-based grant, meaning the family gets no real financial benefit from the student’s efforts. Many schools, realizing this leaves little incentive to earn scholarships, have more generous policies. Some schools will first use merit and outside scholarships to meet unmet financial need (costs that might still remain if your aid package doesn’t cover your EFC). If your full need is met, the school might replace your loans and work study (the parts of your aid package that aren’t “free money”) with your scholarships. And some schools will let you apply a certain amount or percentage of outside scholarships to your family’s bill before they replace your needs-based grant. Even if a school uses all or most of your outside scholarship to replace a grant, it is still worthwhile to apply for scholarships, as earning one can make you a more attractive applicant.

It’s All Negotiable

Many people don’t realize that financial aid is negotiable. If your family has difficult circumstances that aren’t reflected in your applications, or if your aid package simply isn’t enough to allow you to attend, make an appointment with the financial aid office and explain your needs. If your second or third choice school offers you a better deal, meet with your first choice school and politely explain the situation. No matter what they say, make sure to send an email afterwards thanking them for their time. The worst that can happen is you’ll keep your current aid package, but if you’re a top applicant then the school might offer you a better deal.

The more attractive you are as an applicant, the more negotiable your aid package will be. Therefore, as with most steps in the college process, it’s most important to be the best student you can be.

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