How to Make Sense of Your FAFSA Offer

Your financial aid determinations can radically affect the schools where you ultimately enroll, so it’s important to submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) early in order to maximize your award. After the U.S. Department of Education reviews your completed FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report, or SAR, followed by an award package from your prospective colleges.

Understanding your FAFSA offer can be confusing, but this guide can help. Here are four steps to take after you receive your SAR:

Locate your DRN

When you first receive your SAR, find your Data Release Number (or DRN). This is essentially your FAFSA ID number, and it’s the code you’ll use if you must submit FAFSA information updates. Record your DRN in a safe place, perhaps several times.

Determine your EFC

Next, find your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. This number is calculated according to a formula that weighs your family’s total income (including assets and benefits), as well as its size. It’s important to note that your prospective schools use your EFC to decide how much federal aid you qualify for—you won’t necessarily pay the listed amount.

Explore your award package

There is occasionally a bit of a wait between receiving your SAR and your award package. This is completely normal. You may get a physical letter in the mail, or you may receive an e-mail with a link to your online award package.

Most award packages describe the anticipated costs of a year at the college, sometimes called the cost of attendance. These estimates take into account costs like tuition, room and board, books, and miscellaneous personal expenses. Your award package will also include your financial aid total.

Choose your financial aid options

Your financial aid options may include a variety of grants and loans, as well as work-study arrangements. You have the option to accept or decline each. Certain loans may be subsidized, which means the U.S. Department of Education helps you cover their interest during specific time periods. Grants are much like gifts—you don’t need to repay them.

Your award package will also detail the disbursement of each offer throughout the year. For example, a $1,000 Dean’s Scholar Grant might be broken down into a $333 payment in the fall, $333 in the winter, and $334 in the spring. This is ultimately the most important part of the FAFSA process; your payment options are laid out before you, and you must decide how you will fund your school year.

On the horizon are payment deadlines and runs to the grocery store for ramen noodles—along with the many diverse joys of college, of course! But with some financial aid forethought, you can make decisions now about which forms of assistance work best for you and your family.


This article was written by Schuyler Durham

Schuyler Durham is a professional tutor and contributing writer for Varsity Tutors. He received his bachelor's degree in journalism from University of Oregon in 2014.


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  3. Glenn is a non-profit site that analyzes – free and anonymously – whether families’ EFCs can be reduced or if there are better loan strategies. They showed us that even though we could lower EFC $6k/year, it was not worth it because my daughter’s college (FSU) does not provide much in gift-aid. What was helpful is them showing how much (7.2%!) Parent loans (PLUS) end up costing by junior year. We are financing another way!

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