The Three Worst Things You Can Say to a Financial Aid Officer

Student in her dorm roomWhile some parents may be thrilled to help their teenagers plan and pack up for college, other moms and dads are having something closer to an anxiety attack. It's not just that time is passing and that the most important, cherished people in their lives are about to move out and on with their lives. There's also that dreaded question: How the heck am I going to pay for this?

Of course, some parents don't plan to pay for any of it; they figure they've gotten their kids this far in lifeand now it's time for their children to step up and take over. But for the parents who do plan on paying for some or all of their child's college education, they're likely going to find themselves across the desk from a financial aid officer, trying to figure out just what to say to afinancial aid officer to get their hands on those much-needed funds.This can be a stressful and desperate conversation, as it is whenever you ask anyone for a loan. After all, the financial aid officer has the power to help you -- or wish you good-bye and good luck. So before you talk to one, keep in mind the three worst things you could possibly tell a financial aid officer.

1. "I Don't Know How Much Money I Need"

That's not exactly going to endear you to a financial aid officer, says James Beach, director of college funding for American College Counseling, Inc. and, a national company offering counseling to students who are looking to gain admission to their ideal college.

While you may see yourself as being refreshingly honest, revealing your lack of knowledge about how much money you need signals to the financial aid officer that you haven't been taking this process very seriously, says Beach, who adds that it isn't that difficult to determine how much you need: "Figure out how much your family can afford, subtract it from what college will cost, and you'll have an idea of how much you're looking for."

2. "Another School Offered Me More Money."

While you can subtly reveal this little tidbit, says Mike Scott, director of scholarships and student financial aid at Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth, on the whole, you probably shouldn't. "Playing the 'another school offered me more money' card can be dangerous," says Scott.

Why? Well, financial aid officers are only human, and one would like to think that they're in this position because they want to help young adults on a new path to a better future and life, and, once you tell a financial aid officer you don't desperately need their money -- because some other college is offering you more -- they'll go looking for someone who does.

And on a related note, Scott comments, "When your job is giving away money, you'd think that people would be nice to you. You wouldn't believe the number of people who come into the office with an attitude. Occasionally, I end up with some extra funds after school starts, so I'll ask my advisers to give me names of students who need additional help. When that occurs, whose names do you think they give me? I'll give you a hint -- it's not the ones who were rude to them."

3. "I Know You've Given More Money to My Child's Classmate."

The whole idea behind financial aid is that you're asking for it because you really need it -- you just don't have enough to pay for your child's college education. You aren't bartering at a flea market, and you can't treat the financial aid officer as an agent working to get you the best deal on a TV show. That other student, as the financial aid officer well knows, has a completely different life than you and your child, and thus a completely different set of financial circumstances.

By pointing out that someone else received more than your child, you're coming off as petty and perhaps suggesting the financial aid officer doesn't know how to do their job -- as if you think the officer doesn't realize they should have given you the same deal they gave to the person you know received more.

The bottom line is this: Tell the financial aid officer how much money you need and why you need it, and have the documentation to back up your request (everything from pay stubs to hospital bills, if that's why you're short on cash).

Now, we probably should end right here -- after all, this is supposed to be the three worst things you could possibly say to a financial aid officer. But here's a bonus. Greg Gearhart, the director of financial aid at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., says that what you don't want to say is what everyone says. He says people are constantly telling him things like:
  • My EFC (expected family contribution) doesn't reflect my actual ability to pay. "Well, everyone thinks that," Gearhart says.
  • I don't believe in borrowing. That you haven't applied for a loan doesn't mean you're any more needy. It just means you don't want to borrow money. Who does?
  • Never tell a scholarship coordinator that you don't "test well," Gearhart advises. "Everyone with a low SAT/ACT score tells us that."
Geoff Williams is a regular contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of Living Well with Bad Credit.
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