From: If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted by Collegewise founder, Kevin McMullin
Update from Summer 2020: if you want to qualify for merit money, it’s essential to confirm with a school if they will require standardized testing to award it. While colleges have gone test optional for admission purposes, that doesn’t mean they have done so for merit money. This nuance is incredibly important to understand before you decide if to take standardized testing and/or if to send. Confirm with your individual schools on their websites.
Financial aid isn’t all cold, hard numbers and measuring costs of what your family can afford to pay. Financial aid offices have a lot of power to offer more generous packages to students they think are right for the school and are more likely to attend. Here are some quick tips:
Apply to colleges that may pay
One of the best ways to get more financial aid is to apply to plenty of “target” and “safety” schools. At a minimum, most colleges will offer financial aid that students qualify for. But the specific aid package offered—and whether or not that package is even more generous than what a student is eligible for—can have a lot to do with how badly the admissions office wants a student at that school.
If you’re a strong student who fits well with that college, the financial aid office may offer an award package that has more free money, with fewer loans or work-study components. If they’re not as interested, the opposite might be true.
If a school really wants a student, they can also offer a scholarship that has absolutely nothing to do with financial need. Financial aid offices earmark a certain percentage of money every year just to lure academically appealing students. This practice is called preferential packaging, and it’s not a dirty secret. Note the following from the financial aid office at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA:
"Preferential packaging means, simply, that the students a college would most like to enroll will receive the most advantageous financial aid packages. A preferential financial aid package includes a far greater percentage of grant aid than self-help (loans and work). Because they have discretion over how much grant aid they choose to award a student, a college can award a bigger grant to a student they would really like to enroll. In some cases, the total of grant from the college and the loans the student is entitled to may exceed the student’s financial need."
Rule of thumb
The simple rule of thumb: if you want more financial aid, apply to the schools most likely to accept you. Every year, Collegewise sees "B" and "C" students who get generous and unsolicited offers of aid from colleges. They do it by applying to plenty of target and safety schools that fit them well, and where they have a good chance of being admitted.
The better the fit between a student and a college, the more likely that school will entice a student to attend. Regardless of GPA, students can find target and safety schools offering potential scholarships. One former Collegewise student with a 2.8 GPA and an 18 on the ACT got a $6,000-per-year merit-based scholarship from Westminster College in Salt Lake City, UT.
Find a financial safety school, too
I often recommend that students pick a "financial safety school", one that they're sure they can get into and pay for—even if they get no financial aid.
If you apply to the right colleges, use the net price calculator (available on most colleges' websites), and file all of the appropriate forms, you probably won’t need a financial safety school. Still, it’s always good to have a fallback position when things don’t go as planned. If there’s one thing families have learned in recent economic times, it’s how fast financial situations can change.
If you’re not sure there are any schools you could afford without financial aid, take a look at the public universities in your state, ask your counselor which ones you have the best chance of being admitted to, and make one your financial safety school.
Remember, nobody is saying you necessarily have to go to your financial safety school. But it’s much better to at least have the option if things don’t work out as you expected them to.