The big dollar sign combined with a question mark image doesn’t need any explanation as it hovers over every college acceptance letter. Many colleges, upon accepting you, will send an acceptance and a financial aid offer. Some will not, while others will send a more initial award that is not complete. Sometimes, the acceptance comes too early for the financial aid office to have all of their special calculations taken care of, especially if you just sent your FAFSA to them. It’s nerve-wracking, especially for students where a good financial aid offer is all that really guarantees them a chance at college. For every acceptance letter and congratulations, there arises the question of whether or not the financial aid offer will do. Remember, in most cases the money isn’t just coming from you but also from your parents.
To keep yourself from freaking out too much can be easier than you think. There’s a wash-over period for decision letters: while most of them can all come in on a certain day, there will be a week (or more, depending on the number of schools you applied to) that comes with decision after decision. A simple way for you to be able to breathe easier as you receive these decisions is that with every acceptance, you open that Google Doc spreadsheet (or Excel) with a list of the colleges you applied and were accepted to, and then input that information on financial aid: dollar amount, no aid, or pending. Itemizing your information like this allows you to clearly see what information you have. You can customize this list with other details, as I did.
But here’s how I started that handy little spreadsheet. I had a list of all the schools I applied and was accepted to. The schools were broken up by whether they were “In-State” or “Out-of-State,” with my state being Texas. The next column included the tuition and expenses that each school would require. After I filled out this information, it was very clear to me just how much I would need in financial aid to be able to attend the school. I then added more columns, specifically in relation to scholarships, what kind of scholarships the school offered, and how much I had been offered. I included information on whether I had been accepted to the engineering college (back when this was a priority), where exactly the school was, and whether there was any other information I needed to get/include (such as late subject tests and FAFSA/CSS Profile info). Ultimately with some changes, I ended up with this:
See, what was so helpful to me was having that information all laid out. Everything important and necessary to me about a college that I was considering was there. And for a student who was partially considering schools by how much money they offered for me to attend, shrinking the school to the most absolutely necessary information that met that evaluation criteria was key. I had done the research before I applied, visited, had interviews. I already knew how I felt about the schools. What I truly needed now was their numbers and how they related to me.
Filling out this spreadsheet took time. The word “pending” in that “Scholarship Offers” column was around longer than a number ever was for most of those schools. Outside that spreadsheet, life was anxious. I knew schools were offering me money — which was fantastic — but I didn’t know which I could attend or if it would be enough. Most of us don’t have a clear understanding of our family’s finances, assuming we’re depending on/working with them for college. So while we think we have an idea of what can be afforded, we don’t really know for sure until we sit down with that adult unit of the family and discuss what options are open to us.
But that conversation is hard, because for many of us, we don’t want to hear what our parents have to say. When our parents can’t just magically write a check for whatever school (and many of us are in such a position) and they’re just as invested in the situation as we are, we find ourselves both desperate for our parents to say yes to the expensive dream school no matter the cost and miserable at the idea of them sacrificing for us. Often, if we sit down to that kind of conversation, it’s because a communication breakdown has occurred: your parents don’t know what’s up and are worried, and you don’t want to hear them say “no” or say “yes” and know exactly what they’re giving up for that yes. Emotions start running high, and it can be a terribly unfortunate discussion.
So the spreadsheet. No, I’m serious. Outside the spreadsheet, everything was a mess and disjointed. Inside the spreadsheet, my parents could know what the schools had said, what I was saying, what I was thinking, and that I was acknowledging what they were thinking and wanting. I shared it with my father as a Google Doc, and printed it out for my mother. The conversation was clear, and understandable. With all of the relevant information, we could sit down and breathe a little and reasonably discuss my college options. This also minimized the asking of that frustrating question, “Do you know how much X college is paying yet?” No, thank you very much, I don’t because they haven’t accepted me yet or they haven’t told me yet, I do not know, WHY CAN’T YOU BE MORE SENSITIVE TO MY LIFE? UGH.
I do not suggest screaming such words. Instead, I suggest calmly saying, “If you would look at the spreadsheet…” It worked wonders. My dad didn’t even ask as often, he just checked it himself. He often communicated the information to my technophobic mother. It’s key, this passing of information between you and your parents about what financial aid has been offered and what hasn’t and where it’s coming from. The college process is full of emotional twists and turns, and even if you’re presently three-for-three and don’t foresee a change in those stats, those acceptances provide highs that can come with hard falls. Cushion yourself with some spreadsheets. You’ll understand what’s going on, and so will your parents.