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  • Writer's pictureVicky Keston

Financial Aid and the First Choice Letter

Here’s the scenario: You’re applying to private K-12 schools. You’ve created a list of private schools for your child, written application essays, completed interviews, and brought your child to the school for events. You’ve applied for financial aid and uploaded your financial documents. Your friends are now writing first choice letters to persuade their top choice to offer the school to them. What should you do, knowing that you can’t afford full tuition, and schools might offer you very different financial aid packages?

First Choice Letters

Why write a first choice letter? These letters are intended to convey to a school that you will accept their offer. Because not every family will accept an admissions offer, most schools accept more students than spaces in their entering classes. Even the most popular schools have challenges predicting their yield, which is the percent of children offered admission that will ultimately attend the school. Quite famously, some schools underestimated their yield and needed to add an extra class of kindergarten, which stretched the physical facility. The idea behind writing a first choice letter is to reduce the school’s risk of over or under estimating the size of the class. 

Financial Aid Offers

How is financial aid calculated? First, the admissions team compiles a list of students that they would like to accept if financial aid were unlimited. Next, for each student that they would like to accept, the financial aid team calculates the family’s need, which is typically based on their income, assets, a standardized cost of living, and the number of children in tuition-bearing schools. Then, the theoretical financial aid for all students is totaled up because most schools have insufficient financial aid budgets to meet the demonstrated need for all students they would like to accept. For this reason, most schools must offer some students less aid than their demonstrated need. At this third stage, the school’s priorities are considered. The more that a school wants a particular child or student, i.e. the more they fit their priority, the more likely the student’s financial need will be met.

Most families find their financial aid offers vary dramatically. There are numerous reasons, including (1) different methodologies to calculate need, such as inclusion of home equity or a different cost of living budget, (2) differing financial aid budgets, (3) match of student with each school’s priorities for financial aid, (4) the school’s opinion of the importance of financial aid on the family’s decision, and (5) the school’s opinion of whether the family would accept an offer from the school. 

First Choice Letters and Financial Aid

When could a first choice letter increase a family’s financial aid? When the school makes its admissions offers in March, they cannot risk more parents accepting their offers that include financial aid than modeled, or they will run over budget. This means that if a school knows they are a family’s first choice, they know that they will not be “wasting” budget by offering financial aid to this family. 

When could a first choice letter decrease a family’s financial aid? Schools will typically offer their most generous packages when the student fills a priority area, the family places a large weight on financial aid in their decision, and the student is likely to have other offers. Some schools may offer less if they feel the family strongly prefers their school over other schools, or if the family has the ability to pull from savings or ask a family member for help. 

Financial Aid Caveats in Your First Choice Letter

Any first choice letter from a family that cannot afford full tuition must mention the financial aspects of their offer. It is crucial to use language that balances the need for generosity with a realistic view on the school’s calculations of the family’s needs. For example, one can express hope that the financial aid offer is sufficient to allow the student to attend. Similarly, you can state that your family will accept an offer that meets your financial needs. Or, if your family will choose the school offering the lowest financial contribution, you might leave out completely the idea of accepting the admissions offer.

Important. If your family is on the borderline to qualify for financial aid, it is best to deemphasize the role of financial aid on your decision unless the school is openly need blind.

Role of a Consultant 

A school consultant can help you assess your financial need, optimize your application package, and make decisions along the way. The consultant can also help you to narrow down your list by noting the financial aid budgets and policies of different schools in the area. Narrowing down your options can save you many hours of research and application writing. 

Independent school applications require parent essays, a parent interview, a group event for children, and for older students, a school visit. Middle and high school applications also require student essays and interviews. Your school consultant can review parent and student essays, and prep for the interview. Understanding how to present yourself and your family to each school is critical for essay-writing and editing. 

For financial aid applications, your school consultant can discuss the value of the optional essay, what is a realistic “ask” for your aid, and how to choose a school where your financial need will most likely be met.

Lastly, when schools return the decisions, your consultant can help you to weigh the pros, cons, and fits of each choice.

Want more input on schools?

Vicky consults with families to help apply to and select public and private schools in San Francisco in an environment of non-judgment. VIP and Season packages include a discussion to review school options, applications, essays, and key decisions. Vicky offers a limited number of packages each year to assure her availability. 

Vicky’s own children have attended both public and private schools; her elder is in high school, and her younger in middle school. New clients can email to learn more about her services, or see her website to learn about her packages.


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