A student with a superior aid package from a competing school may also have a good shot at augmenting an award. But this is another touchy subject among aid officers. It's the rare school, such as Carnegie Mellon University, that openly admits it will consider matching another school's offer. Most say they won't. But somehow, many colleges seem to have an easier time finding a financial reason to rejigger the numbers when they know another institution is dangling a more attractive offer. That's especially true if the student hasn't yet decided which school to attend.
But again, be careful. A "top this, or else" approach may backfire. Instead, try something like this: "My second choice school sees our need differently. It gave us an extra $3,000. But you're my first choice, and some extra aid would make it possible for me to go here. Could you review our application again to see if there's an error or if anything has been overlooked?"
Of course, this strategy works best when the two schools are of equal stature in terms of admissions standards and reputation. A Duke or a Cornell University, for example, isn't going to waste time discussing an offer from Georgia's Valdosta State University. Students who are deemed a good catch for the school also have an advantage. What's a good catch? Think about what colleges want in their student bodies: brainiacs (students with grades or test scores that put them atop the applicant pool); individuals with special, in-demand talents like artistic or athletic ability; racial and geographic diversity; and a variety of majors.
Last, but not least
Okay, so you don't have any special talent, extenuating circumstances, or better aid offers. (The last will almost certainly be the case if you apply for early decision to a school and thus have only one offer to consider.) But you still believe the expected family contribution is out of line. Students can also ask an aid officer to simply explain how the family's need was determined. An aid officer, for instance, may have calculated a certain level of assets using the dividends and interest on the parents' tax return, or he or she may have set the value of the family home based on a national index of home appreciation. But the family may no longer own the assets that generated income in a prior year or may live in an area with below-average home appreciation rates. Asking specific questions, such as how much of the family contribution comes from parents' assets versus student assets, might bring such discrepancies to light. On the other hand, the queries might work against you and turn up an error.
Whatever the approach, be prepared to make your case in writing. These days, it's typical for the financial aid office to ask for a formal letter of appeal, which is then reviewed by a committee rather than a single aid officer. That helps to avoid uneven results based on the "individual idiosyncrasies" of aid officers, says Case.