One college may focus on high school curriculum and grades, while another leans more heavily on SAT scores, he says.
[Learn how to maximize merit aid.]
If students receive fewer merit scholarship dollars from one school, it's worth asking the admissions office how the awards are determined, Hanlon says.
"Most institutions can and will provide you very, very good specifics on how you did. Exactly what was strong about your application, what may have been weak about your application," he says.
This information can give students a chance to update their application and have it reconsidered for competitive scholarships, if their credentials have improved from when they were accepted, Hanlon says.
5. Is more money available?
FAFSA applications only give financial aid officers a snapshot into a family's financial situation, says McDonnell, at Sarah Lawrence.
"Often times there [are] so many other financial challenges families face that you can't put on a financial aid application," she says. "When they share that with me I can say, 'Whoa, wait a minute. This is important to you, this is important to us; let's see what we can do.'"
[Take these steps to increase your financial aid.]
Divorce, job loss, uncovered medical expenses and financial hits due to natural disasters can all be valid reasons to appeal a financial aid award, aid officials say.
If there is no change in your family's financial situation, it still doesn't hurt to talk to the school if you're coming up short, says McDonnell.
"While I get all kinds of appeals, the one that's most successful and most helpful, is the family that sat down and looked at their finances and says, 'If Sarah Lawrence could just squeeze out another X number of dollars, this is doable,'" she says. "But too often I'm not even given the chance to try to squeeze."
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.