Student Financial Aid: Complete Guide — Interview With Amber Gilsdorf, College Planning Consultant, Estrela Consulting



TUN sits down with Amber Gilsdorf, a college planning consultant with Estrela Consulting, to discuss financial aid tips and advice for students. 

TUN: Thanks so much for joining us, Amber. 

GILSDORF: Thank you for having me. 

Can you explain the different types of financial aid out there?

Before I explain the types, the most important thing to understand is the definition of financial aid. Financial aid is defined as any grant, scholarship, loan or paid employment offered to help a student meet college expenses. 

Financial aid encompasses a lot of different sources of money, and it’s usually provided by various organizations. Financial aid can come from federal and state agencies, the colleges themselves, foundations and corporations. The amount that the student receives is determined by those same agencies’ guidelines. 

In the world of financial aid, there are two categories. Category one is merit. Category two is need-based. 

Merit aid

Merit aid is determined by grades, test scores, academics, talent, service, athletics and being a legacy student. Merit aid is any money that a student gets for being great at something or connected in some way to something. (Merit aid) is money that we like because it’s gift money. You don’t have to pay it back. It’s free money.

Need-based aid

The other category is need-based aid. That is determined based on a family’s income, assets and overall finances. 

There are several different types of merit and need-based aid. As I said, merit aid is money for being great in some way or connected in some way. That money is only awarded through scholarships. 

Need-based (aid) can come in a lot of forms. It can be a need-based scholarship, a grant or a work-study, which is when a student is employed by a university and the money that student earns contributes to their total cost of attendance. Those three types — need-based scholarships, grants and work study — aren’t paid back. 

Then, there are also need-based loans. We all know that a loan needs to be paid back. Need-based loans come from one source, the federal government. Other loans, in general, can come from private lenders. 

How can students maximize the amount of aid that they receive? Can you walk us through the process?

There is no singular way a family can maximize aid. It’s not a silver bullet. It’s a marathon. The best way to maximize aid comes from the work a student puts in long before senior year. 

Grades and test scores

We have grades and test scores. You will never see me on the soapbox touting testing. 

But, unfortunately, it’s the easiest way to maximize aid at schools that offer merit aid. 

Again, those are scholarships for being great at something. In this case, I’m speaking about academics. So, that work comes long before students ever get to senior year. It depends upon grades in high school and test scores. 

So, my recommendation for families to maximize merit aid is to apply to at least two or three schools where the student’s grades and test scores are in the top 25 percent of admitted students. 

Most schools will publish their middle 50 percent average of incoming students’ GPAs and test scores. So, if I have a 30 on the ACT and I apply to a school where the middle 50 percent of students who are admitted are earning a 25-28 ACT score, my 30 automatically puts me in that top 25 percent, which makes me a strong candidate for top merit scholarships at that school. 

For higher grades, students need to develop strong academic skills. I’m not talking about being good at reading, writing and arithmetic. I’m saying time management, organization and asking for help. These are the soft skills for getting higher grades. 

Intentional testing plan

For higher test scores, I recommend an intentional testing plan with test prep beginning long before a student ever takes the ACT or SAT. For most students, that means taking the PSAT as sophomores, completing a pre-ACT if their school offers it, purchasing prep books and completing full-length practice tests. 

SAT practice problems and full-length tests are available for free on College Board’s website. ACT prep is available on

A student should take a practice SAT and a practice ACT and then compare scores to determine which test is the student’s stronger test. From there, students should put in a concerted 12-15 hours of diligent study leading up to the first testing session. If there is a particular subject area that the student struggles in, the student should seek help from teachers in that subject area. 

What a family should do is, look at the test dates for this upcoming year, select the first one that fits the student’s timeline and determine how the student is going to get those 12-15 hours of prep leading up to that date. 

That is the marathon silver bullet. It is not a quick fix. There are other things that families can do that are much more manageable and not as long term. 

Know school’s financial aid policy before applying

The number one thing a family should understand is it all boils down to the list that students have of where they’re going to apply. 

A family needs to understand that the bulk of the money a student will receive to attend college will come from the college itself. There’s no magic tree or magic ferry that will swing in and give extra money. It’s got to come from the school. That is the largest funding source for a student’s financial aid.

Every family, when they’re putting together a student’s application list, should know what each school’s policy is around financial aid. Does that school provide merit scholarships? Do they provide need-based aid?

For example, Northwestern is a need-based aid institution only. So, if I’ve worked my tail off all the way through high school, I’ve got a perfect 4.0 and a 36 ACT, and my family is in a high enough income bracket where I won’t qualify for any need-based aid, I’m certainly not going to get a merit scholarship at Northwestern. Understanding what a school’s financial policy is before applying is a way to maximize aid. 

So, how do you find that information? My favorite source is a site called It’s free, but you have to make an account. You can look up a school and then there’s a tab called “money matters.” When you click on that tab, you can see all kinds of data compiled about an institution. You can see what percentage of students receive merit scholarships and what percentage receive non-loan, need-based aid. Those are usually called institutional grants or institutional scholarships.  

That’s the information I’m looking for when I’m putting together a list for students. That’s my number one thing. Know the financial policies at each school before you apply. And, be sure you have schools on your list where you’re going to be a candidate for their (institutional aid).

Fill out the FAFSA and CSS

There are other things that families can do. They can complete and submit the FAFSA and the CSS profile, if the colleges that they are applying to require it. These are the two applications for need-based aid. It’s really important to file these applications as soon as possible and by their deadlines at the latest. 

Every school accepts the FAFSA. This stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It is free and it accounts for a family’s income, their assets at the time of filing, the student’s income and any assets the student has. This application gives the college a snapshot of a family’s financial situation. 

From that, the FAFSA determines something called the “EFC,” the Expected Family Contribution. This is what families will be expected to pay. 

Let’s say my EFC is $20,000 and I apply to a school that has a $28,000 total cost of attendance and a school that has a $50,000 total cost of attendance. My EFC is the same at all of the schools. It is what I am expected to pay. 

Now, I might not be able to afford to pay $20,000, and I certainly might be applying to a school that doesn’t make up the difference. But, the FAFSA must be on file as soon as possible. 

I’m not going to get into the CSS profile in detail because that’s usually for much more selective schools. There are about 400 institutions that require the profile, but it is a much more intensive review of a family’s finances, and it takes into account if a family owns a business and if they have other very specific and detailed information. 

These forms and applications must be in by the deadline to ensure that a student has a shot at any need-based aid. 

State aid

The next thing is, every state has money set aside to support college-going students from that state. The association that has all the information on state financial aid programs is 

Every state education agency usually has at least one grant or scholarship available to residents, and these will be very specific. For example, in Ohio, we have the Ohio College Opportunity Grant and the Ohio War Orphans and Severely Disabled Veterans’ Children’s Scholarship. You can see how very specific and niche some of them are. We have the Nurse Education Assistance Program. It’s a loan program but, again, very specific.

Minimize cash reserves

Another fringe suggestion, which I don’t advocate for unless a family is working with a financial planner, is to minimize the amount of money sitting in cash reserves at the time they file the FAFSA because assets are, of course, a percentage of that calculation. 

I’ve worked with families where they may have $100,000 or $200,000 sitting in cash reserves that are not really itemized to go anywhere. When a family can minimize that amount, it may make a difference in the EFC. It also may not, depending on the income bracket. That’s why I always put a little caveat on that tip. Use caution and work with the financial planner before making any decisions about what to do with that money.

Once students get their financial aid letters back with their acceptance letters, they have to compare and contrast their options. Analyzing these financial aid packages can be kind of confusing. Do you have any tips to help them analyze and compare their financial aid packages?

First and foremost, the biggest tip is to not be afraid to ask questions. Every college has a financial aid office with financial aid counselors whose job it is to answer your questions. If anything is confusing, do not be shy or embarrassed. Please call that office and make an appointment to sit down with a financial aid officer and have them walk you through it item by item and line by line. 

This is one of the biggest investments, next to maybe buying a house, that a family will make. You can’t afford to let pride or embarrassment block that. So, please ask those questions. You have every right to ask questions and set up those meetings. 

That’s my first recommendation. Second, for a family that understands what they’re reading but wants to compare and analyze, there are a couple of tools that are my go-tos. They each have their pros and cons, but they at least will help a family get a snapshot or a ballpark idea of which schools are offering better packages. 

BigFuture by College Board has a “compare your aid awards” calculator. Most students will have a College Board account if they’ve taken the PSAT or the SAT. If students have a College Board account, they can log in and save their work as they work through the calculator. You can actually compare up to four schools at a time. It walks you through plugging in all the different types of financial aid included in those award letters. You can get a really itemized breakdown of what out-of-pocket total a family would be paying and how much they would have to pay back. 

The downside is that I don’t think the College Board account goes into the level of specificity that my type-A personality really appreciates. But, it’s a good snapshot. 

The other one that I’ve directed families to is offered by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They have a tool called “your financial path to graduation.” This tool has the super specificity that the College Board lacks, but it’s only one school at a time. 

This tool also has a built-in budget planner. So, say you take out $30,000 in loans, you can actually see how that repayment plan will work. 

It has a countdown on the right-hand sidebar that helps the student understand how much they still need to fund that hasn’t been covered by financial aid. 

Those are my two go-to resources after talking with the financial aid counselors at every school. I said every school. So, if you have four letters you’re trying to compare, that’s four meetings with four different financial aid counselors. But, again, that’s their job. 

In which situations would you advise students to appeal their aid offers? Do you have any tips to help them do that?

I don’t think you should appeal every offer. I think it’s really important to appeal when there’s been a loss of income or a change in income from a job loss, death or medical bills, etc. Appeal anytime there has been a change. 

The fatal flaw of the FAFSA, specifically, is that it’s based on income information from something called the prior, prior tax year.

I recommend that families who know, in advance, that they will fall into this category of financial change be proactive. Your student has a list of schools. It’s okay to contact the financial aid offices in advance. 

The minute you hit submit on that FAFSA, start calling or emailing the financial aid offices at every single school to which your student is applying. They are there to help. 

They will solicit more information from you, and, most likely, that information is going to require proof that there’s been a change in income. So, there will be paperwork to be filed. But the sooner you start that process with them, the better. These offices are going to be inundated come springtime when financial aid letters go out. If you can get ahead of it, your financial aid package can be adjusted to include the change in income well in advance of the financial aid package ever going out to the family. So, be proactive. Have lots of paperwork and proof. 

The same goes for if your financial situation changes in the middle of the year. Let’s say you’re cruising along and then something comes up and blindsides you. The same rules apply. Get on the contacting process ASAP and be ready to submit all requested paperwork. 

I have been down this path many times with families. Colleges are always willing to try to help a family. They may not always be able to help the family.

If you haven’t had anything significant that applies to what I just said, but you still feel like you need more money in aid, I recommend that families wait until April or May to request reconsideration of their financial aid. 

The reason for that is that college financial aid offices are scrambling through the winter and spring to assist families who’ve experienced major financial changes. So, they’re going to be hesitant to work with a family that doesn’t have the ability to provide proof that they need any more aid. They’re not going to put you at the front of the line. That doesn’t mean they’re not going to help, but they’re waiting to see how they can manage the other situations. 

So, for families who really just feel like it’s a stretch, wait until April or May. Compose an email to the financial aid office. 

Usually, it helps to have some kind of counter offer. So, for students who maybe have two small private liberal arts schools offering drastically different financial aid awards — I’m talking by 3-5 thousand or more — that’s when it’s appropriate to make an appeal. 

Be kind. Don’t be demanding. And just say, “When you have a chance, I would like you to reconsider this.” 

And this is okay for parents to tackle. Oftentimes, parents are dealing with the financials and are obviously the ones who are funding this process. A student does not need to be the one contacting and dealing with financial aid offices. If they’re comfortable doing that, great. But, they don’t have to be that person. So, parents managing the process for their students when it comes to this is appropriate. 

And then having that other financial aid award from another school and saying, “Here’s what Denison University was able to provide, is there a chance that you could match this?” 

Again, don’t go in with expectations that it will work out. At most you may be able to get maybe a couple of thousand dollars off. Don’t expect $20,000 more. Prepare for nothing and then you might be pleasantly surprised. 

Check TUN’s interview with Megan Walter, a policy analyst with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), for tips on how to write a financial aid appeal letter.

In which situations should students apply for private loans? Do you have any advice to help students select the best private loans? 

As a general rule, students should only consider obtaining a private educational loan if they have maxed out the federal loans. Federal loans, also known as the Stafford Loans, have much lower interest rates. They have fixed interest rates. They have lower fees and costs over time, and they usually have better and more flexible repayment plans. So, federal first and everything else second. 

The federal government also offers something called the Federal Plus Loan

Any private loan a family is considering should be compared against the Federal Plus Loan. The Plus Loan is much less expensive and also can have better repayment terms than private loans. 

Private loans can have fixed or variable interest rates and can also come with higher origination fees and other fees. Sometimes, there can even be fees for paying your loan off early.

So, a student should only apply for private loans if there is a gap between the total cost of attendance and that student’s college savings, federal loans, scholarships, work study and monthly cash flow. 

Let’s say, a school costs $30,000 and all of the money that I just referenced adds up to $22,000 a year, a family needs to come up with the missing $8,000. That’s when we start looking at the private loans. 

The total amount that students borrow in all loans (both public and private) over four years should not exceed the total amount they would make from their average first-year starting salaries. This is my rule of thumb.

If your student doesn’t know what they want to do, pick four or five fields that they’re considering and figure out what the average salaries of those are. 

The fees for private student loans vary by lender. When taking out a private student loan, keep an eye on the origination and application fees as well as penalties for paying that loan off early. 

Private loan lenders will usually allow for a family to get pre-qualified online before you fill out an application. This can help you figure out how much you might be able to borrow and what your interest rate could be.

When you are ready to pursue a private loan, compare the fees and interest rates of multiple lenders before making a decision. Do not take the first one that you research.

Shopping for rates, comparing options and making an informed decision are the best ways to go about pursuing a private loan. But, borrow as little as humanly possible on the private side. 

Thanks, Amber, for joining us today. 

It has been my pleasure. Thank you for having me. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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