Video: How to Read a Financial Aid Award Letter

As your college offers begin to roll in, you’ll start getting financial aid award letters as well. You may notice a couple of things:

  • The award letters all look different. 
  • And they’re all a bit confusing.


It’s not you. The information on financial aid award letters can be complicated, but it’s your job to read and understand them so you know exactly how much each college will cost for you to attend.

Once you know the true cost of attendance, you can compare your offers and choose a college that you can afford.

To learn the basics, start with our guide: Comparing College Offers.

It can be helpful to see what a bunch of real award letters look like. Not only will they all look different, some award letters may not include important information that you’ll need to calculate the true cost of attendance.


Financial Aid Award Letters: Take the Tour

We recommend watching this 20-minute video by Mark Salisbury, the creator of a website called, which allows you to see and compare real financial aid letters that are crowdsourced from hundreds of students and counselors.

In his video, Mark walks you through a variety of recent financial aid letters, pointing out their differences and where you may need to look to find the most important information.

Because the video is a bit long and covers a lot, we recommend watching it a couple of times. Watch once, just to get a feel for things. Then use our show notes below to review those sections that are most important to you.


Video Show Notes

Fundamentals: What you need to know (Minute 00:00)

Cost of attendance: College costs and your costs (Minute 00:53)

Free money: Grants and scholarships (Minute 5:35)

Debt money: Federal loans and Parent PLUS loans (Minute 8:50)

Maybe money: Federal Work Study (Minute 11:42)

Actual price: Adding things up (Minute 14:07)