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College List Building

How to Research Schools on Your College List

The more you know about the colleges on your big list, the easier it is to narrow down your choices. Step four in the SMART college list building process is research the colleges on your list.

This is SMART, a 5 part step-by-step process for Building Your College List:

1. Start Big! Your initial list should be expansive.
2. Measure your level of interest in the schools on your list.
3. Assess your acceptance likelihood and affordability for each school.
4. Research the remaining colleges on your list.
5. Trim your college list by the beginning of senior year.

You can create and track your college list with our free downloadable spreadsheet.

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Academic Options 

You’re going to college to get an education, so focus your research on academics first. These areas are worth investigating:

  • Majors and degree programs
  • Degree programs specifically in your areas of interest
  • Honors programs
  • Course offerings
  • Options for self-designing your curriculum
  • Internship and research opportunities
  • AP, IB and CLEP exam credit policies
  • Study abroad opportunities
  • Freshman retention and graduation rates

Quick tip: You can find information on honors programs by searching a college here.

Post-Graduation Employment Data

College affordability is a big issue. Make sure your tuition money is being well-spent by investigating a school’s post-graduation job data. Research:

  • 4 year graduation rates
  • Median debt for graduates
  • Median earnings for alumni with less than 5 years of experience
  • Median earnings for alumni working after 10 years

Quick tip: You can easily find a college’s post-graduation data and affordability data when you search a school at MeritMore.

Size and Location

Small and large colleges offer different opportunities for students. Measure your level of interest in attending a big or small school by taking a look at:

  • Class instructors (professors or graduate students)
  • Class structures and sizes
  • Teacher to student ratios
  • School resources
  • Local internship and apprenticeship opportunities
  • Weather conditions

Quick tip: Size and location can play a big part in future employment opportunities. Students on the East Coast may get opportunities to interact with Wall Street finance professionals. Students on the West Coast may get similar opportunities with Silicon Valley tech professionals.

Housing and Campus Life

Housing options and campus life vary greatly between schools. Research:

  • Dorm size
  • Dorm allocation (lottery, seniority or something else)
  • Handicap accessibility
  • Meal plans
  • Greek life
  • Clubs and organizations
  • Cultural and geographic diversity
  • Safety policy
  • Drug policy

Quick tip: You can find information on safety protocols by searching ‘campus safety’ on a college’s website. See crime stats on any college campus here.

More Information

You can do some great research on a college’s social media accounts. Candid opinions about different schools from current students can be found on Reddit if you search by a particular college name. The more you know the easier it will be to trim your college list.

Quick tip: Organize your college list with a college list spreadsheet so you can keep track of all details.

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College List Building

How To Trim Your College List

The schools on your college list should be well-considered and thoughtful choices. You started with a big list of colleges and you probably need to further narrow down your list. Trim your college list is the final step in the SMART college list building process.

This is SMART, a 5 part step-by-step process for Building Your College List:

1. Start Big! Your initial list should be expansive.
2. Measure your level of interest in the schools on your list.
3. Assess your acceptance likelihood and affordability for each school.
4. Research the remaining colleges on your list.
5. Trim your college list by the beginning of senior year.

You can create and track your college list with our free downloadable spreadsheet.


Twenty Colleges at Most

By the beginning of your senior year you should trim your college list to no more than 20 schools. You can continue to cut schools based on research you’ve done on a college, campus visits (virtual tours count too), counselor recommendations, your level of interest and other factors.

Quick tip: Organize your college list with a college list spreadsheet so you can keep track of all details.

Balance by Acceptance and Affordability

At least 30% of the schools on your list should be SAFETY schools that you’ve also labeled AFFORDABLE. These should be schools that you’d be excited to attend.

Another 50% of the schools on your list should be TARGET schools that you’ve labeled either AFFORDABLE or STRETCH. Make sure that you have a strong chance of getting merit aid from any school you’ve given the financial label ‘stretch.’

The other 20% of the schools on your list can be REACH schools that you’ve labeled either STRETCH or PAINFUL. Make sure that you have a strong chance of getting merit aid from any school you’ve given the financial labels ‘stretch’ or ‘painful.’ You can find your strongest merit aid matches and average merit aid awards here.

Quick tip: Keep at least 2 safety/affordable schools and 2 target/affordable or stretch schools on your list at all times.

More Offer Letters are Better for Financial Aid Appeals

Once offer letters start coming in, it’s time to think about the financial aid appeals process. The more offer letters you have, the better your ability to leverage one financial aid package against another. The Common App allows you to apply to as many as 20 schools. Find all the schools with no application fees here.

Quick tip: You can also apply to non-Common App colleges including schools in the California public system, Georgetown, Ohio State and colleges abroad.

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Affordability College List Building

How to Assess Acceptance Likelihood and Affordability of a College

You’ve done the work to measure your level of interest in all the schools on your big college list. Now it’s time to determine if you can get admitted to a school and if you afford it. Step three in the SMART college list building process is assess acceptance likelihood and affordability.

This is SMART, a 5 part step-by-step process for Building Your College List:

1. Start Big! Your initial list should be expansive.
2. Measure your level of interest in the schools on your list.
3. Assess your acceptance likelihood and affordability for each school.
4. Research the remaining colleges on your list.
5. Trim your college list by the beginning of senior year.

You can create and track your college list with our free downloadable spreadsheet.

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Reach, Target or Safety?

Enrollment Profile:
To assess your acceptance likelihood type ‘enrollment profile’ into the search bar on a college’s website. Find the profile of the most recently admitted freshman class to see statistics including:

  • Undergraduate student enrollment numbers:
    • Applied
    • Admitted
    • Enrolled
  • Acceptance rate
  • The middle 50% weighted and unweighted GPA of admitted students.
  • Standardized test ranges for the middle 50% of admitted students.

Naviance Scattergrams:
About 40% of high schools use Naviance. If yours does, you can compare your stats against previous students from your high school who applied to the same college. Naviance scattergrams show you:

  • GPA and test score data points for each previous applicant.
  • Enrollment decisions: admitted, waitlisted, or denied.
  • The average GPA and average SAT/ACT for all students accepted to that school.

Quick tip: Organize your college list with a college list spreadsheet so you can keep track of all details.

Affordable, Stretch or Painful?

Net Price Calculator:
To assess affordability use a college’s Net Price Calculator (NPC) to determine your estimated family contribution (EFC). (You can easily find a link to a college’s NPC when you search a college here.) The federal government subtracts your EFC from the college’s cost to determine if you qualify for need-based aid (Pell Grants and Stafford Loans). Net price is the amount you’ll pay for college after financial aid is (or is not!) awarded. If cost is an issue for you, focus on schools that offer generous financial aid and merit-based scholarships. You can find all the schools likely to give you merit aid and the average amount of the award on MeritMore.

Quick tip: Research a college’s merit aid and need-based aid statistics. You can find affordability data easily when you search a college at MeritMore.

Have You Had the ‘College Money Talk’ Yet?

Once you’ve determined your acceptance likelihood and affordability, it’s important figure out how you’ll pay for college. Have a conversation with your student about how your family will pay for college. A frank discussion about finances will alleviate stress and help you make informed decisions about further researching colleges and better financial fit decisions about which colleges to trim from your list.

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College List Building

How to Measure Your Level of Interest in a College

The first version of your college list is big! Now it’s time to figure out how excited you are about the schools on your college list. The second step in the SMART college list building process is to measure your level of interest in a school.

This is SMART, a 5 part step-by-step process for Building Your College List:

1. Start Big! Your initial list should be expansive.
2. Measure your level of interest in the schools on your list.
3. Assess your acceptance likelihood and affordability for each school.
4. Research the remaining colleges on your list.
5. Trim your college list by the beginning of senior year.

You can create and track your college list with our free downloadable spreadsheet.

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HIGH level of interest

You’ve already shown demonstrated interest in this college. Whether it’s because of an academic program of interest or where it’s located or because it’s a strong merit aid college and you think you may get a merit aid scholarship, for whatever reason you feel like you belong on this school’s campus. 

Quick tip: Organize your college list with a college list spreadsheet so you can keep track of all details.

MEDIUM level of interest

You already know a lot about this school. You may not have done a deep dive into researching it yet, but you can comfortably see yourself on campus. This school is a good option for you and you’re eager to learn more about it. 

LOW level of interest

You don’t know a lot about this school and you’re not really that interested in it . . . yet. It’s on your list because it ‘should’ be. It meets some of your criteria, but not all. 

Quick tip: Keep 4 to 6 ‘low interest level’ schools on your list until it’s time to trim your list before the beginning of senior year. They may move up after you research all the schools on your college list.

A Few Dos and Don’ts

  • Don’t save your HIGH level of interest labels for expensive ‘dream’ schools alone. Once you assess your acceptance likelihood and affordability you’ll see that few students can afford them and fewer still get accepted!
  • Do measure your level of interest in every school on your big list. This is an important step in the college list building process.
  • Do use your levels of interest to help you organize your college list and see how much effort is required to research all the schools.
  • Do keep an open mind! Leave a number of schools in each interest level on your list. After some research, schools with the MEDIUM or LOW interest label can move up.

Categories
College List Building

When Making a College List, Start Big

When it comes to purchasing big-ticket items (like a college education), it’s always good to see all your options before making a decision. 50 or more schools on the first version of your list is A-okay! Starting big is the first step in SMART, an action plan for building a well-considered and balanced college list.

This is SMART, a 5 part step-by-step process for Building Your College List:

1. Start Big! Your initial list should be expansive.
2. Measure your level of interest in the schools on your list.
3. Assess your acceptance likelihood and affordability for each school.
4. Research the remaining colleges on your list.
5. Trim your college list by the beginning of senior year.

You can create and track your college list with our free downloadable spreadsheet.


All the Colleges You’re Interested In

No matter the reason, this first list should include every college you’ve considered. As you add schools, think about majors and special programs, campus size and location. You can organize your list with a college list spreadsheet so you can keep track of all details. Consider consortium colleges –– schools that give their students access to classes and resources from other local colleges. Some small liberal arts schools have consortium agreements with larger local STEM schools. A consortium college is a great way to get a small school’s benefits while getting access to a larger school’s opportunities. Honors programs at state colleges can also offer great options, even for non-residents. You can find links to hundreds of honors programs when you search a college at MeritMore.

Quick tip: Schools will naturally fall off your list after you measure your level of interest, assess acceptance likelihood and affordability and research colleges. When it comes time trim your list, you’ll know which schools to keep and which to discard.

All the Colleges Suggested to You

Put college suggestions from friends or relatives on your list. If you leave yourself open to suggestions, you may discover a hidden gem school you’ve never heard of, but that’s exactly what you’re looking for. If you search for schools that are likely to give you merit aid—aka money to attend!—you’ll discover all the colleges (hidden gems included) that are most likely to give you a merit aid scholarship to attend.

All the Colleges in Your Backyard

You can get an excellent and more affordable college education if you stay in-state. Every state in the US is required to have at least one public university. Students who are residents are offered discounted tuition fees from their state’s public university. If you decide to attend a private school in your state, you’ll also save (significantly) on out of pocket costs.  

Start BIG, Then Narrow Down

Starting with a big college list, will help you create a more balanced shortlist down the line. And you won’t suffer from ‘college FOMO’ (fear of missing out) since any college you’ve ever been interested was on your list at one time. If you removed the college later on, it must have been for a good reason. Use the SMART list building process and you’ll find out what you really want from a college.

Categories
College List Building

The SMART Way to Build a College List

A good plan of attack for the first task in the admissions process — building the college list — decreases stress and makes the rest of the process less difficult. The best tips from parents’ experiences, workshops, professionals and articles are in SMART, MeritMore’s easy to remember action plan for building a well-considered and balanced college list.

This is SMART, a 5 part step-by-step process for Building Your College List:

1. Start Big! Your initial list should be expansive.
2. Measure your level of interest in the schools on your list.
3. Assess your acceptance likelihood and affordability for each school.
4. Research the remaining colleges on your list.
5. Trim your college list by the beginning of senior year.

You can create and track your college list with our free downloadable spreadsheet.

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The 5 Key Steps in SMART

Start Big! The first version of your college list should be big. This version can have as many as 50 schools on it. Include all the colleges you’re interested in (no matter the reason) on this list. At each step in the process, schools will naturally float to the bottom.

Quick tip: Organize your list with a college list spreadsheet so you can keep track of all details.

Measure Your Interest Level. Assign each school an interest level of High, Medium or Low. This will help you organize your list and see how much effort is required to research all the schools. 

Assess Affordability and Acceptance Likelihood. Use the Net Price Calculator (NPC) on a college’s website and find their incoming freshman data to assess your acceptance likelihood and affordability. MeritMore’s free Compare Colleges feature shows you average merit aid, GPA, test scores and acceptance rate percentages for colleges. You can also find every college’s NPC at MeritMore.

Research Your Top Colleges. Start on a college’s website to research the qualities that differentiate one college from another. Search for information about degree programs, honors programs, support services, housing, campus life and other areas of specific interest. You can quickly find links to honors programs by searching for a specific college here.

Trim your list to 20. By the beginning of senior year, you should trim your college list to no more than 20 schools. Continue to cut schools based on further research, campus visits, counselor recommendations and other factors.

Quick tip: You can apply to as many as 20 schools via the Common App. You can also apply to non-Common App schools including any in the California public school system, Georgetown, Ohio State and colleges abroad.

This is How You Build a Balanced College List

Going through the SMART college list building process helps you to get to know yourself and figure out what you want in a college. If you follow the steps, you’ll build a well-considered shortlist and be excited to attend any of the schools you’ve selected. 

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common app

How to Get a Great Letter of Recommendation

Trust us when we tell you that your favorite teacher isn’t just your favorite teacher. Inspiring teachers usually have a big student fan base. This means that they’re popular targets when it comes to asking for letters of recommendation. If you ask early enough and provide good information highlighting your accomplishments, you can get a great letter of recommendation from your favorite teacher. 

Ask teachers for letters of recommendation in your junior year

Most teachers like to write recommendation letters in the summer. If you wait until the beginning of your senior year to ask, many teachers will already be in the process of writing letters for other students. Teachers appreciate being asked early so they have enough time to craft the most thoughtful and well-considered letter for you. It’s also important to have your letters in hand if you need to meet Early Decision or Early Action deadlines in the fall. The earlier you ask, the better.

Choose teachers that you have a meaningful connection with

The best way to get a great letter of recommendation is to ask for one from a teacher who can speak about your performance inside the classroom and your character outside. Most colleges require 1 to 3 recommendation letters. If you can’t submit all your letters through the school specific supplements on the Common App, most schools will accept additional letters via email.

Prepare 3 to 5 bullet points that highlight your accomplishments

It can be hard for teachers to remember specific details about individual students. You can help the teachers writing your letters by giving them a short list that highlights: 

  • Your accomplishments in that teacher’s classroom
  • Your accomplishments in your high school
  • Significant participation in extracurricular activities or clubs 
  • Any awards or distinctions you’ve received
  • Any unique circumstances you have 

Letters of recommendation give a college insight into who you are beyond your grades and test scores. Give your teachers the time and information they need to put together a great letter of recommendation for you.

Categories
Affordability

5 Reasons to Talk About How to Pay for College with Your Kids

Talking about money is never easy. And it’s even harder when you have to talk about financial concerns with your kids. For most families, one of the biggest financial hurdles is how to pay for college. Having a clear and calm discussion about the cost of college at the beginning of the admissions process is the best way to avoid financial problems down the line. Here are the top 5 reasons you should have the college money talk with your high school student today:

Talking frankly about how to pay for college is empowering

Everyone knows that college is unaffordable for most families. But until it’s time for your child to start the admissions process, few families know or discuss actual numbers. Today, the average in-state cost for a public university is $25,890; out-of-state cost is about $41,950. A private nonprofit college costs about $52,000 and at some schools you can pay as much as $70,000. Having a clear discussion about how much your family can realistically contribute toward paying for college will put you in control and allow you and your student to make informed financial decisions throughout the admissions process.

You can plan ahead for potential financial shortfalls

It’s important to identify your family’s current financial challenges and anticipate future ones. If you plan ahead you can have a financial strategy in place to help your student pay for college. Savvy families can save thousands using a merit aid strategy to help decrease out of pocket college expenses. Merit aid is available to students regardless of financial need and can be awarded in combination with need-based aid. And merit aid isn’t only for straight-A students. You can easily find the colleges likely to offer you merit aid and their average merit awards here. If you think you’ll need a loan to pay for college, learn the difference between federal loans versus private loans and subsidized loans versus unsubsidized loans. You can find useful information about loans on the internet, but make sure you don’t rely on big loan sites (that want your business) for all your information. 

You’ll avoid a college shortlist of unaffordable schools

Lots of students end up with a college shortlist that’s heavy on pricey and unaffordable schools. This is usually because they’ve never had a frank discussion about how much their family can afford to spend on college. More important than gaining admission into a name brand school is graduating with as little college loan debt as possible. There are plenty of amazing schools that will give you money to attend.

You can create a realistic student budget before college starts

Anticipating the cost of transportation, books and materials, social activities and other out of pocket expenses will give your student some time to see how they can contribute to the bottom line. Arguing about smaller amounts of money, like an UberEats bill for instance, is usually a symptom of the overall stress of paying for college rather than the actual cost of a dinner. A mutually agreed upon budget will keep your student on track and keep money arguments to a minimum. 

Your student will learn the value of their education

Going to college has become a significant right of passage. But college is a financial burden for most families. Parents make huge sacrifices and take on personal debt to pay for their kids’ college education. On the flip side, students routinely graduate with student loan debt that will take them decades to pay off. Having an honest conversation with your student about the cost of college will lead to better decision making and hopefully, open the doors to honest conversations about non-financial college topics, aka the fun stuff. 

Categories
Affordability

4 tools to Compare Offers and Help Families Successfully Appeal for More Aid

Your Aid Package is Based on What The College Thinks You Need

Financial aid award letters have arrived! Families who have a clear understanding of their offers and then thoughtfully appeal for more financial aid money can receive thousands of dollars more in aid each year.  In an admissions season full of unknowns, schools are on the hunt to recruit new students. Families are in the driver’s seat when it comes to appealing for a ‘financial fit’ attendance price. 

“Colleges are more open to negotiating affordable aid packages now.”

Mark Salisbury founder of TuitionFit

Appealing for More Money Makes Good Financial Sense

Appealing for more financial aid is a common practice. Families ‘in the know’ have been asking colleges for more money for decades — long before the economic impacts of Covid. Everyone can appeal for more aid, but those facing income or job loss have even more leverage

I had a student who received a $30K per year merit award at his first choice, but he was also offered a full ride at his second. I worked with the family to write a merit aid appeal, and the first choice school increased his merit to $45k per year.”

Laurie Kopp Weingarten, Certified Educational Planner and President of One-Stop College Counseling

Understand What a College is Giving You vs What They are Loaning You

It’s crucial that you clearly understand aid that has to be repaid (loans), aid that is earned (work study) and aid that is granted (scholarship or grants) in their award letters.

You can find out the out of pocket costs for each college by doing an apples to apples comparison of all your offers. First, find out each college’s financial aid appeal process. Second, strategically craft and submit a clear and compelling letter. Third, include any required documentation or paperwork that helps support your appeal.

The best strategy for securing more financial aid from a college is to show them that a comparable institution has offered you more money.”

Neeta Vallab, founder of MeritMore

Are Online Tools Equally Useful?

There are online tools that can help families navigate the appeals process, but they’re not all as helpful as they could be. Here are four resources we evaluated for you:

MeritMore | Compare Offers and Appeal Letter Generator 

  • Unlimited apples-to-apples comparisons of all financial aid offers received
  • Crowdsourced merit aid amounts from similar students for the same colleges, including historical data
  • 1st year out-of-pocket calculation, estimated 4-year cost, and recent graduates median income
  • Customized “smart letter” technology auto-generates appeal letter incorporating comparable offers
  • Free 

TuitionFit  | Compare Verified Offers

  • Unlimited apples-to-apples comparisons of all financial aid offers received 
  • Crowdsourced prices and aid amounts offered to similar students no matter what college the award came from
  • Verified data
  • Historical data
  • Free with upload of financial aid award letter

College Board | Offer Calculator

  • Compare 4 offers at once
  • Percentage breakouts of costs 
  • Free

Lending Tree (Student Loan Hero) | Financial Aid Calculator

  • Compare 3 offers at once
  • Percentage breakouts of costs 
  • Matches consumers to lenders (not all qualify for advertised loan rates)
  • Free

A Closer Look at MeritMore’s Compare Offers & Appeal Letter Tool

MeritMore’s new tool for streamlines the appeals process for all families who are asking a college for more money. Features include:

  • Unlimited apples-to-apples comparisons of all financial aid offers received (crowdsourced merit aid amounts from similar students for the same colleges, including historical data)
  • Calculations of 1st year out-of-pocket cost and estimated 4-year cost
  • Data on median incomes of recent graduates
  • Customized ‘smart letter’ technology auto-generates an appeal letter that incorporates comparable offers
Compare College Financial Offers Image
Appeal Letter Generator Image

Appealing for More Aid is an Important Step in the Process

You can save thousands of dollars per year on the cost of college if you take the time to negotiate for more money. Asking a college for more money will not negatively impact you. In fact, it’s one of the most important steps in the process of making your final decision about which college you’ll attend. 

A smart consumer always tries to find the best deal possible and you should too. While appeals aren’t always successful, don’t self-select yourself out of getting more money simply by deciding not to ask.

Categories
Affordability

5 Powerful Things to Say in a Financial Aid Appeal

You can save thousands of dollars per year on the cost of college if you take the time to appeal for more financial aid. If the situation fits, here are 5 compelling reasons to give a college why you’re appealing for more aid.

Reason 1: A Comparable College Offered You More Money

Colleges enrollments are down. Colleges want the students they’ve admitted to attend and they’re ready to negotiate. 

The best strategy for increasing your financial aid package is to show a college that another school with similar acceptance rates offered you more money. First, it’s important to compare college offers. Putting your out-of-pocket cost for each college in a grid is a useful way to organize offers. Then, appeal for more financial aid.

Reason 2: Your Family’s Financial Situation has Changed

A negative change in your financial picture is always an important reason to appeal for more money. Significant out of pocket medical expenses or a separation, divorce or death of a spouse are good reasons to appeal. If you’ve experienced a pandemic-related loss of income or if it’s looming, e.g. you’ve been notified that your company will be laying off employees in the coming months, you’re in an even better position to negotiate for more aid.

Everyone can appeal their financial aid package, but those facing income or job loss have even more leverage

Reason 3: Your EFC is Higher than the College’s NPC Estimate

You can’t always rely on a college’s net price calculator (NPC) to give you an accurate Expected Family Contribution (EFC). If the EFC on your award letter is higher than the college’s calculator initially indicated, you should ask for more money. 

First calculate your net cost, aka out-of- pocket cost by finding the cost of attendance on your award letter and subtracting your gift aid from it to get your out of pocket cost. Then, indicate the amount of money your family will need to attend the college.

A tool like MeritMore’s free Compare Offers and Appeal Letters tool does an apples to apples comparison of all your financial aid offers, including your estimated 1-year and 4-year year out-of-pocket costs.

Reason 4: You Entered Incorrect Information on the FAFSA

Mistakes happen. Unfortunately, if you’ve made a mistake on your FAFSA it can cost you. The good news is you can correct your FAFSA. Let your college of interest know what happened in your appeal letter and show them supporting documentation to make your case. 

Fortunately, there’s also good information online that will take you through the steps of writing an effective appeal letter.

Reason 5: You Provide Regular Financial Support for Family Members

Helping to pay for the care of elderly parents or extended family members or paying school fees for other children is common for many families. Write an appeal letter to the college and provide documentation for these costs.  

Financial aid officers need facts and figures to make a decision about increasing financial aid. Make sure you include any paperwork that will support your appeal.

If you don’t ask for more money, you won’t get more money. 


Appealing your financial aid package won’t impact you negatively. In fact, it’s one of the most important steps in the process of making your final decision about which college you’ll attend.  A smart consumer always tries to find the best deal possible and you should too. You can find step by step instructions on how to appeal for more financial aid online. While appeals aren’t always successful, don’t self-select yourself out of getting more money simply by deciding not to ask.