You should feel euphoria and relief when you’re finally, mercifully accepted to college. But if your jaw drops in shock at how little financial aid you’ve received, it’s time to take action.
These six steps will help you figure out why your financial aid package didn’t hit the mark, what to do next to close the gap and how to keep college affordable in your freshman year and beyond.
1. Comb your FAFSA or CSS Profile for mistakes
Colleges use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, to determine how much money you and your family can contribute to college costs. Nearly 300 colleges and scholarship funds also require families to answer additional financial questions on the College Board’s CSS Profile.
Both applications can trip up students. The FAFSA, for instance, asks how many other children receive at least half their support from your parents, even if they don’t live with you. Siblings away at college count, and students who don’t include them on their applications could end up with smaller awards, says Andrew Meriwether, senior e-advisor with the nonprofit College Advising Corps.
Ask a college counselor to look over your forms to make sure you didn’t misinterpret any questions. You can make corrections to the FAFSA online, but be sure to contact your school’s financial aid office to confirm updates to both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile.
» MORE: Step-by-step FAFSA guide
2. Appeal your award
If you have your heart set on a particular school and need additional aid to afford it, you can appeal your financial aid award. You’ll likely be more successful if there was an error on your aid application or if your family’s circumstances have changed since you first applied; say, if your parent lost a job, got divorced or gave birth.
Ask the financial aid office how its appeals process works. In most cases, you’ll email the office with your request, which should include supporting documents proving your claim and a request for a specific additional sum.
You can appeal if your circumstances haven’t changed, but you’ll see better results if you have a competing offer from another school that you can ask your dream school to match. Go into the process with realistic expectations, Meriwether says. A strong appeal could get you an extra few thousand dollars, but a $20,000 gap will be harder to bridge.
3. Explore scholarships, but know how they’re applied
Many states have higher education agencies that offer grants and scholarships to local students who need additional financial aid, and in some cases you must apply for them on your own, says Danielle da Silva, director of college counseling at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
Search for state programs using this tool from the National Association for Student Financial Aid Administrators. The U.S. Department of Education also lists contact information for each state’s higher education agency.
You’re probably tired of hearing that private scholarships are also available to help you pay for school. It’s crucial to understand that schools may reduce other types of financial aid if you receive an outside scholarship, a process called award displacement. Ask your school how it applies outside scholarship funding to your financial aid award. Request that it reduce your student loans, if possible, not state or school grants or scholarships you were previously awarded.
» MORE: Guide to college grants
4. Maximize federal student loans, especially after freshman year
Student loans made up part of the financial aid package for about 70% of graduates from the Class of 2014, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. Student loans may seem inevitable, but the type you borrow can have a big impact on your repayment experience.
Borrow the maximum amount of federal student loans before moving on to private loans, since federal loans come with more generous repayment and forgiveness options. Plus, you can borrow more federal loan money as you progress in school. While you can only borrow $5,500 a year as a first-year dependent student, you can borrow $6,500 as a sophomore and $7,500 as a junior or senior. So if you need a private student loan to make up the difference in your financial aid award as a freshman, switch to federal loans later on.
» COMPARE: Top private student loan options
5. Pay tuition in installments
If you’re concerned about your ability to pay for out-of-pocket costs once you’ve committed to a school, ask the financial aid office if it has a program that allows tuition to be paid in installments. Instead of shelling out a lump sum at the start of each semester, a payment plan would allow you to pay on a monthly basis.
This is one of the lesser-known financial aid options for students, Meriwether says. Paying month by month could help your family fit your college bills into its budget, and perhaps reduce your reliance on student loans. But you must make sure ahead of time that your school will allow it; otherwise, you could be hit with substantial late fees.
6. Get cozy with the financial aid office
Your relationship with the financial aid office shouldn’t end after you file an appeal or receive extra money for your freshman year. Stay in touch, and remember that you can return to the office if your family’s financial situation changes in the future or you receive less aid as an upperclassman.
“The more that you talk to the people at financial aid and the more that they know who you are and understand your circumstances,” Meriwether says, “the more you’re going to be able to find a plan that works for you.”
This article was written by NerdWallet, and another version was originally published by USA Today College.