Colleges are either need-blind or need-aware in their admissions policies. A college that is need-blind makes acceptance decisions without considering a student’s financial need or ability to pay. A college that is need-aware will consider what the student can pay when evaluating their application. So need-blind must be better, right?

Well, not necessarily. The fact that a school maintains a need-blind admissions policy does not mean that it meets student financial need. For example, Carnegie Mellon University is need-blind in admissions, but only meets full financial need for 27% of undergraduates.* This can result in students being accepted but not being able to attend.

And the fact that a school is need-aware does not mean that need will factor into every applicant evaluation. Financial need is a bigger issue for marginal applicants; strong applicants who bring exceptional GPAs, test scores and class rankings are desirable commodities whether or not they can pay. A need-aware school might reserve a portion of its admissions slots– say 25%– for those who can pay full fare. Outside of the most elite schools, colleges will not just admit but actively recruit (through scholarships and other perks) top applicants regardless of ability to pay.

So, what do you need to do to improve your admissions chances at a need-aware school? Make sure you’re at the top of the applicant pool academically. Then the school will want you regardless of your ability to pay.