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If you're not sure, ask the financial aid officer at your college

If you don't fully understand your financial aid package or the process of applying for and receiving these funds, contact the college's financial aid office.

If one college offers a substantially different package than another, it's worthwhile for the student or parent to contact the financial aid offices for an explanation, says Jim Kolesar, a spokesman for Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The difference could be due to an error on a form, or the colleges may have had different information.

"Given the amounts of money, it doesn't hurt to ask," he says. "They want to be fair, and they want your kid to come, or they wouldn't have admitted him or her."

The U.S. Department of Education recently created a model financial aid award letter format known as the "Shopping Sheet" or use this calculator. Students may complete this sheet for each college from which they receive an award letter. Students and parents can then easily compare the financial aid package from each college.