My apologies if this is a little down-to-the-wire. Then again, you might do better waiting until the last minute to negotiate an aid award. If you’re planning to do so, here are a few things you need to know.

The first step is to determine what type of aid is being offered, need or merit (or a combination of the two). Each has its own negotiation pathway. It should be fairly clear from the award letter which it is; you may already know, too, which type(s) the school offers.

Need-based awards generally include work study, subsidized loans, Pell Grants, parent PLUS loans. Because need-based aid is allocated based on strict formulas– a requirement of participating in the federal student aid program– the way to negotiate a need-based award is to demonstrate that your financial circumstances have changed since you filed the FAFSA or CSS PROFILE. Relevant changes might include a parent’s job loss, substantial medical expenses, a new child in the family, or other financial hardship.

Merit awards have far more leeway, and you’re often best served by waiting to negotiate or accept admission. Why? Because chances are good that students who were offered merit awards at your top choice school were offered similar awards elsewhere, and they might choose to attend elsewhere. When they do, that frees up the merit dollars that were allocated to that student.

If you’re going to negotiate a merit award, you’re best off if you have a competing offer from a comparable school. Princeton doesn’t care what San Diego State offered you. Be prepared that the school will likely ask you to send them a copy of the award letter to verify it. You would also do well to research the awards your desired school offers. If your GPA and test scores have you close to the next level of award, you’re in a better position to ask for it.

Here (again) is a transcript of a very helpful interview with the financial aid director at Occidental from a few years back, describing the appeals process from the institution side.