We love being able to review and analyze awards for students and their families so they can take that final step toward deciding on a college in the spring. If you need to create your own spreadsheet, I am sharing some of our best tips and tricks here so you can accomplish just that.

We create an “Award Analysis” spreadsheet for each of our first-time students once they start receiving financial aid award packages. This allows us to condense the award letters, show them all side-by-side, make them unified so they’re easy to compare, and get rid of any unnecessary or “fake” amounts that may be listed.

  • Condense the Award Letters

First-year applicants can receive 5, 10, even 15 financial aid packages all at different times throughout the winter and spring, and each one is unique.

NOTE: many colleges will send notice of certain merit/tuition scholarships with the acceptance notice, but if you have completed the financial aid process you will receive an actual financial aid award letter. Generally, these have some breakdown of tuition and costs, then some breakdown of awards received, and some form of a total (often referred to as Direct/Net Costs).

Add all of the college names to one spreadsheet (to where you have received acceptances). There’s really no point to add colleges to your spreadsheet where you have received a denial or waitlist notice.

  • Arrange the Awards Side-by-Side

Arrange the college names down the first column, and create column names going across, so that each award has the same categories and can be read across the page from left to right. Put your total (out-of-pocket) costs at the very end.

You want everything to line up in the same format, so you can easily read each award and compare each college’s award side-by-side. We use specific categories, which I will share below, but your 2 most important categories will be your COA and Direct Costs.

We place the total cost of attendance (COA) in the first column, and the Direct Costs/out-of-pocket expenses in the last column. These will be your biggest reference points for your comparison.

Remember, COA includes: tuition and fees, room and board, and books.

  • Unify

Here comes the tricky part. Because every college lists their costs and awards differently, it can be hard to interpret which categories fit where.

But here are the general categories and guidelines we use:

– COA (Cost of Attendance): as mentioned above

– EFC (Expected Family Contribution): we list this category because we want to know if the college is meeting your financial needs, and which colleges are doing better, or if there are any going under their published percentage. EFC is sometimes listed on the award itself, but you can also find it on your FAFSA.

– Financial Need: This is the difference between the COA and EFC. In reality, you cannot have less than 0, and you cannot have more need than your COA for that college. (Check or adjust your calculations if either of those scenarios happen.)

– Percent of Need Met: percentages help simplify the awards received for easy comparison. ‘Need Met’= the amount of your financial-need that the college has awarded you. We also list the amounts in USD.

– Percent of Gift-Aid: the amount awarded in scholarships, grants (money you don’t have to earn or pay back), compared to the total award.

– Percent of Self-Help: the amount awarded in loans of the total award.

– Total Costs: this is the last category that shows your direct, or out-of-pocket costs.

  • Remove Unnecessary or “Fake” Amounts

Unfortunately, one of the biggest fake-outs we see on award letters is the (Parent) PLUS Federal Loan. Many colleges will take the full out-of-pocket cost and “award” a PLUS loan, which is a federal loan taken out in the parents’ name only. This loan can be helpful for some, and is considered financial aid, but we leave this amount off of our calculations and consider it out-of-pocket expense.

Another area to look out for is the expense section. Many colleges will add items like ‘Personal Expenses’ (which could be a general average for things like shampoo and pizza). These are legitimate expenses, but would most likely be absorbed by a family without having to consider it in your tuition total. ‘Travel Expenses’ will be similar to personal expense and is largely an arbitrary or average amount. ‘Medical Insurance’ is another category commonly added to expense reports (just in case!), but it is very rarely elected as part of a student’s true expenses if they are already part of their family insurance plan.

Below is a sample heading for you of how we organize awards for our students. Happy deciding!

Until Next Time,

Hope Santos

Director of Financial Aid

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