5 Dos & Don'ts of Negotiating College Financial Aid Offers

With college acceptance letters flooding seniors’ inboxes and mailboxes–and the May 1st deadline to commit to a college on the horizon–families want to know if the financial aid offers they’ve received are truly colleges’ best offers.

Every year, we walk many families through the negotiation process to appeal below-average offers from schools. As part of our financial services, we analyze your financial aid offers and help identify your best opportunities for successful appeals. This process typically takes place in late March and early April.

Most of our seniors are still waiting on final offers from colleges … but in the meantime, here are some important dos and don’ts to prepare you for what’s ahead!


1) Talk about competing offers. Colleges are much more willing to work with you if they know you’ve received better offers from competing schools. This is one of the reasons why we urge students to apply to a minimum of 8-10 colleges. You can make a stronger case in your favor if you can point to multiple offers from colleges that will cost less than the college you’re negotiating with. Some colleges will match competing offers if you send them copies of those financial aid letters.

2) Have a parent be the one to communicate with the financial aid office. When it comes to financial aid, most colleges want to deal directly with a parent. A parent is the best person to speak knowledgeably about the family’s financial situation.

3) Be patient. We know that when the end of the admissions cycle is so close, waiting can be difficult! However, it is well worth it to wait until the end of March or early April before beginning the negotiation process. Your chances of receiving additional aid are greater if you wait until you’ve received complete financial aid offers (not just scholarship letters) from every college on your list. That way, you can cite all of the competing offers you’ve received, boosting your chances of receiving more aid.

Furthermore, in April, many colleges will have a clearer idea of how much additional money they can offer students. Colleges who are seeing a drop in enrollment numbers at that point are also more likely to do what they can to woo students who are still making up their minds. Over the years, we’ve consistently seen that families tend to be more successful in their negotiations as we get closer to that May 1st deadline.

4) Express interest in the school. Colleges are more willing to try to work with you if they think you’re genuinely a good fit for the school. Remain professional and polite for the best results. We usually recommend starting the conversation by thanking the college for admitting your student, talking about how excited your student is to attend, and then asking if there is anything more the college can do to make it more feasible for your family to finance your student’s college education.

5) Go in with reasonable expectations. There’s no quick and easy secret to going to college for free. If you’ve met with a member of our financial team, you’ve already received a full report on your estimated college costs (check your white binder). In most cases, your financial aid offers will put you within the estimated range. Sometimes, colleges will offer more if they are very excited about a particular student, which is why we do so much work to match the right student to the right college. But while it never hurts to ask if a college can offer additional aid, there is no guarantee that you will receive what you’ve asked for. If a college’s enrollment numbers are up, they may not have any additional aid to offer. Some colleges don’t offer merit aid to begin with. Every school is different, and every year is different. The financial aid evaluation report we give you will help to evaluate your best and worst offers and highlight opportunities for negotiation.


1) Complain to the financial aid office before you’ve received your official financial aid offer. Don’t jump the gun! Again, we know waiting is hard, but some colleges will release financial information in pieces over the course of a few months. You may receive an initial scholarship offer in December, another scholarship offer in February, and your complete financial aid offer (which includes scholarships, grants, loans, and work study) at the end of March. Wait until you have all of the information you need to make the best case possible for requesting additional aid.

2) Pay all of your deposits right away. If you’ve already paid your enrollment and housing deposits, a college is not very likely to negotiate with you. They already know you’re coming, so they have no need to further entice you to commit. The best thing that you can do is to be patient and wait until all of your offers are in.

3) Compare yourself to friends of friends of friends. It’s never a good idea to base important decisions off of a rumor you’ve heard about your friend’s neighbor’s babysitter’s cousin. It is highly unlikely that this most-likely-imaginary person got into Harvard with low grades and SAT scores and somehow got an amazing scholarship offer even though the parents make a ton of money. Even if it were true, it wouldn’t mean your family is guaranteed to have the exact same outcome. Stories like these make the rounds every year. People like to brag, people like to shock and one-up each other, and people like to make themselves seem better off than they really are. Every year we have families complain to us that “less worthy” students were accepted into a particular college over their child or that “less deserving” families received more money than they did. But you don’t really know the details of everyone’s lives. Every family’s situation is different, and it’s a waste of time to compare yourself to rumors you’ve heard through the grapevine.

Instead, we focus on the actual data we have based on your family’s financial information and colleges’ historical averages. We will use those numbers to determine how your student’s offer compares to average offers for students with similar GPAs and test scores from previous years. That lets us clearly see which of your offers are fair or unfair.

4) Lie. Some colleges will require you to send copies of the financial aid offer letters you’ve received from other schools before they will adjust your financial aid award. Don’t waste your time–and other people’s time–by making up numbers.

5) Threaten. Colleges do not have to award you the amount of aid you want. Colleges can rescind an offer of admission, although that usually happens only in extreme situations. It’s very easy to avoid being in that position. In the world of college negotiations, hostility and aggression will get you nowhere. As long as you remain polite and professional in your communications with colleges, you will have the best possible chance of working with a college to make the costs more affordable for your family.

Need help with this process? Still trying to figure out how much college will cost and how you will pay for it? Click here or email cps@enspherecps.com to schedule a meeting with someone from our college prep team!

Home Equity: Will It Hurt My Student’s Chances for Financial Aid?

“What impact does home equity have on my student’s chances of receiving financial aid?”

That’s a question most families don’t think about until they’re filing financial aid forms for the first time.

Many of the families we meet tell us they’ve always assumed you should pay off your mortgage as quickly as possible.

But will your home equity affect the way colleges calculate your EFC (Estimated Family Contribution)? If so, how? Do different colleges treat home equity differently?

The short answer is that yes, different colleges treat your home equity differently.

At some schools, your chances of getting financial aid could plummet if you have a lot of equity in your house. But at other schools, your EFC–and your chances of receiving financial aid–won’t be affected at all. (Not sure what your EFC is? Click here to talk to one of our college advisors!)

The good news is, at colleges that require only the FAFSA, the equity in your home is a non-issue because the FAFSA does not ask about home equity.

However, schools that use the CSS/PROFILE, which include many of the most prestigious colleges in the country, may be very interested in the value of your house.

Even so, you will still see a difference in how these colleges treat home equity when assessing your financial situation.

Many colleges that look at home equity for financial aid purposes will link it to your family’s income. For example, a school might assess home equity at no more than two times the family’s income.

Let’s say your income is $100,000, and your home equity is $350,000.

Normally, schools that use the PROFILE assess home equity (along with other parental assets) at 5% for financial purposes.

  • $400,000 x 5% = $20,000

  • This means, your home equity would increase your EFC by $20,000, significantly diminishing your student’s chances for receiving financial aid.

If home equity is assessed at no more than two times the family’s income, however, we’ll see different numbers.

  • $200,000 x 5% = $10,000

  • Now, the parent’s EFC would increase by $10,000 rather than $20,000.

As you can see, applying to the right colleges for both your student’s academic goals and your family’s financial situation is of paramount importance when planning for your family’s college expenses. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know how colleges will look at your family’s financial picture?

To get started, email cps@enspherecps.com or click here to schedule a free consultation with a member of our team.

Should My Student Apply Only to In-State Colleges?

“We can only afford in-state schools.”

“My son is applying only to in-state schools because he wants to stay close to home.”

We hear statements like these all the time. With an overwhelming number of college options available to families, it can feel good to have a clear-cut way of instantly narrowing down your college list. But how smart is this approach?

Let’s take a closer at these statements one at a time.

“We can only afford in-state schools.”

A lot of parents take one look at starting tuition costs for in-state versus out-of-state students at a couple of schools and quickly determine they’ll save big by staying in state. But there are a ton of factors that affect how much a college will actually cost for your family: the parents’ income and assets, the student’s grades and SAT/ACT scores, the college’s approach to merit aid versus need-based aid, and so much more! Just as every family’s financial situation is different, so is every college’s approach to financial aid.

We’ve worked with many families who got their best offers from out-of-state private schools. Even though some of these colleges may seem to have outrageous costs of attendance, they can actually be quite generous with merit scholarships for the right students, bringing the total out-of-pocket costs below those of in-state public schools.

In other cases, families may see that in-state colleges will offer them the best deals. And in even other cases, families may see a mix of excellent offers from both in-state and out-of-state colleges. Every family’s situation is unique.

To find out where your family is likely to fall along the spectrum, you can click here to schedule a meeting with a member of our financial team.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t assume you can’t afford out-of-state colleges. Until you’ve met with an expert who can analyze your family’s financial and academic situation, it’s best to keep your options open.

“My son is applying only to in-state schools because he wants to stay close to home.”

This is a common line that we hear from parents. What’s surprising is the number of families who are open to looking at colleges five hours away–as long as they’re in state–but get nervous thinking about colleges that are only two or three hours away in another state.

We get it … it’s comforting to apply to colleges with familiar-sounding names or colleges where you know lots of friends or neighbors who have attended in the past. But by refusing to look at other options, you may be missing out on a college that’s truly the right fit for you.

If you’re not sure where to start, click here to set up a meeting with a member of our academic team to discuss the criteria that matter most to you in your college search. We can point you in the right direction, offer some suggestions, and teach you how best to research a college you’ve never heard of before.

It’s also a good idea to define what you mean by “close to home.” For some families, that means a two-hour radius. For others, a six-hour radius may seem fine. Again, every family’s situation is different, so it’s important to start these discussions early and begin planning ahead.

Need more help? Click here to schedule your personal consultation!

3 College Interview Questions You MUST Be Prepared to Answer

Every year around this time, we get questions about college admissions interviews. Interviews can feel like a mysterious, anxiety-inducing step in the admissions process. For many students, it’s the first time they’ve had to talk about themselves in an interview setting. On top of that, there’s the added pressure of knowing that a positive interview can certainly help your chances of getting accepted.

The good news is that a little bit of preparation can go a long way!

We’ve put together a list of the five college interview questions that you should be prepared to answer.

#1: “Tell me about yourself …”

This is possibly the all-time most dreaded interview question (job interviews included)! How should you respond to such an open-ended question?

It’s helpful if you can be ready ahead of time with 3-4 things you’d like to highlight about yourself. For example, how would you describe the kind of student you are? What are your greatest interests outside of school? It can be a good idea to end your response by explaining why the college you’re interviewing for is a good fit for you, which provides an easy transition into the interviewer’s follow-up questions.

#2: “Why do you want to attend this college?”

This is a huge one! You’d be shocked to find out how many students attend interviews knowing little (or nothing at all) about the college they are interviewing for. You will stand out if you can show that you’ve put thought into your decision to apply to a particular college.

Do your research ahead of time! Be prepared to talk about specific courses, extracurricular groups, the college’s atmosphere, or anything else that factored into your thought process when you applied.

#3: “Why do you want to major in ___?”

While you’re not locked into anything just yet, colleges do want to understand your academic and career goals. They want to get a sense of your plans for the future.

Be honest! By talking about the subjects that truly interest you, your natural enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity will shine through. Show your interviewer what you’re passionate about, and they’ll have a better understanding of what you will bring to the college community.

Need more help? Call 724-745-0305 to schedule a meeting with one of our college advisors!

Is Your Student On Track?

Now that the first month of the school year is out of the way, here’s where your student should be in their college prep journey!


Congratulations! College acceptances have begun!

Already, some of our seniors have been accepted at:

– Robert Morris University

– Saint Vincent College

– Slippery Rock University

– University of Pittsburgh

– West Virginia University

… with many more acceptances to come!

If you have not yet finished submitting your college applications, aim to do so ASAP. By applying earlier rather than later in the admissions cycle, you are maximizing your chances of being accepted at your top colleges and maximizing your chances of receiving better merit scholarship offers.


It’s SAT & ACT season! If you have not yet registered for fall testing dates, click here for a complete list of this year’s available dates.

Remember, the SAT and ACT are the kinds of tests where practice makes perfect. Even 30-60 minutes of studying per week can make a small difference.

Need further motivation? Your SAT/ACT scores, coupled with your GPA, are major factors that colleges will look at when deciding whether to admit you and when deciding how much merit aid to offer you. A score increase of just a few points can translate to thousands of dollars more in merit scholarships!

If you’ve already received SAT/ACT scores from the first testing dates of the year, make sure to forward them to us so that we can help you to build a plan of attack moving forward. We can also talk about what your scores mean as you continue to research colleges and plan some college visits for later in the school year.


Now is a great time to get ahead! You should be continuing to think about career paths that would be a good fit for your interests and skills. Don’t forget to consider factors such as a position’s day-to-day routine, employment outlook, and average salary.

You can also get a head start on SAT/ACT prep and college visits. Even seeing one or two colleges in person can help you to figure out the setting and size that would be the right match for you.

Need help with any of these steps? Still not sure if you’re on track? Go to www.enspherecps.com/schedule to request a meeting with a member of our team!

Get Ahead This Summer in 6 Simple Steps

We always talk about how families must juggle many, many moving parts along the college prep journey. Fortunately, summer is the best time to get yourself back on track–or even better, to get ahead! Using this time to your advantage can really make a difference.

STEP 1: Set goals.

Summer break is a great opportunity for students to make progress toward reaching their goals. It’s important to know what you’re working toward in order to figure out how you can get there. Defining those goals can help you to clarify your next steps.

Younger students might be working on identifying a career path or beginning to prepare for the SAT and ACT. Rising juniors and seniors should be scheduling college visits, narrowing down their college lists, and working on college essays and applications. Every student’s objectives may be slightly different, so if you’re not sure where you should be in the process, make sure to give us a call at (724) 745-0305 to schedule your next meeting.

STEP 2: Know your resources.

Ensphere members have access to a ton of great tools on Career Cruising and Method Test Prep. We are here to help answer your questions and keep you on track, so if you’re not sure where to find something, just reach out to us! Remember to check out the “Earnings” tab, “Employment Outlook” section, and career videos when researching career paths. Use the “School Selector” tool to find colleges that match your criteria, including the SAT/ACT scores you need to get in, enrollment and graduation rates, and list of majors offered.

Method Test Prep offers a 20-week ACT prep course and an 18-week SAT prep course, which include lessons, quizzes, and full practice tests. Our students who have finished both courses tell us that the courses do a good job of providing a foundation for understanding the content of these tests. The courses are built to be flexible so that you can pace yourself and fit them into your individual schedule. Log in, look around, and familiarize yourself with what’s available to you. Contact Erin at erin@enspherecps.com if you need any help!

STEP 3: Make a concrete plan.

After defining your goals and identifying the resources available to you, your next step is to make a plan. Let’s say, for example, that your goal is to raise your SAT Math score from 580 to 700. Instead of deciding vaguely that you will “study a little bit every day,” be specific. Take a look at the math lessons on Method Test Prep, think about how much time you can devote to studying each week, and outline concrete steps for yourself. You could plan to finish Lessons 10-15 next week, complete a full practice test over the weekend to assess your progress, and so on. Setting specific deadlines and checkpoints for yourself along the way can help you to stick with your plan.

STEP 4: Anticipate obstacles.

Oftentimes, students don’t mind setting goals, they’re familiar with the resources available to them, and they have a plan for moving forward. So why do they still end up procrastinating or getting off track?

Sometimes, the reality of the challenges ahead can feel overwhelming. You might find yourself putting things off because there’s an obstacle in the way that you’re not sure how to deal with, and you end up trying to avoid thinking about it.

That’s why anticipating obstacles can be a huge step toward getting tasks done and getting them done early. It’s a good idea to take a look at your goals and ask yourself, “What challenges might I face?” That way, you’re bringing them to the surface right from the start, and you’re better prepared to handle them if they do crop up.

For example, for many students, the college essay can feel like a scary or uncomfortable task that looms ahead. You might have no idea what to write about, how to structure your essay, or how to stay within the word limit. Instead of avoiding getting started, if you know the essay might be challenging for you, it can help to think about what, specifically, you’re dreading about it and how you can overcome that obstacle. It’s always best to let us know if you’re stuck or having trouble so that we can game plan how to help you finish on time.

STEP 5: Do your research.

When it comes to careers and colleges, you won’t know what’s out there until you look! In particular, when determining whether a college might be a good fit for you, visiting the college’s website can be a huge help. You’d be surprised by how few students take the time to do this! By visiting colleges’ websites, you’ll be able to find out more specific information about the programs you’re interested in. You may even be able to look at the curriculum, read about the professors, and view course descriptions as you think about whether the school is a good academic fit for you.

It’s also smart to visit the “Admissions” section of each school on your list and make sure you understand the admissions requirements and deadlines. Every school might be different when it comes to essays, interviews, and separate scholarship applications. Taking even 15 minutes a day to continue researching colleges can make a big difference and help move you in the right direction.

STEP 6: Ask for help.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help! Talk to your parents, talk to your teachers, and talk to us! There are many people who are here for you and who want to see you succeed. Let us know what’s on your mind and what you need help with so that we can get you there.

If it’s been a while since you’ve visited our office, call (724) 745-0305 to set up your next meeting. If you have any friends or neighbors who could use our help, let them know we’re here! Check out our upcoming workshops, latest podcast episodes, and private Facebook community for more.

College Essays: Everything You Need to Know About Getting Started

The college essay is one of the most important factors in colleges’ admissions decisions. The admissions essay is your opportunity to show admissions committees who you really are beyond your grades and SAT/ACT scores. It’s also a factor you have 100% control over—which is why it’s one of my favorite parts of the application process!

Now is the best time to devote yourself to working on your essays and making sure they sound like you. Rising seniors, our goal is for you to submit all of your applications by the end of September, so this is the perfect time to work on your essays and finish them before the school year starts. Rising juniors and younger, it’s never too early to start thinking about ideas! The more, the better!

Sometimes students (or their parents!) think that the college essay needs to tell their entire life story. But you’re typically given only 500-650 words to work with, so that’s simply not possible. Instead, you should tell one story that shows something interesting and personal about who you are. The essay is not a research paper, a resume, or a formal piece of academic writing. You can write in a fun, informal tone. It’s important for the essay to sound like you!

As you sit down to start your essays, give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and free write. The topic that best represents who you are won’t necessarily be the first one that comes to mind. Spend a few days simply writing as much as you can. Explore the topics that you’re passionate about, and give yourself the time to write about several different ideas, memories, people in your life, and other topics that excite you. When in doubt, try writing about anything that makes you happy. Your energy and enthusiasm will naturally shine through in your writing.

Once you have a good amount of material to work with, you can begin looking for stories within the rough material you’ve written. Ask yourself, “What story can I tell about this idea?” You want to tell your story cohesively, with a beginning, middle, and end.

If you get stuck, remember your purpose: to show the reader who you are and what you are passionate about. You can be passionate about almost anything! Basically, tell us something about yourself that we wouldn’t know from your transcript, test scores, or resume.

Don’t forget! On July 15th at the Upper St. Clair Community & Recreation Center, we will be holding our annual College Essay & Application Workshop for rising seniors! The workshop will take place from 11:00-12:30. If you have not yet RSVPed, please reply to this email as soon as possible so that we know to save you a seat! At this very important workshop, we will discuss the nitty-gritty details of what makes a successful essay, we will look at sample essays together, and we’ll give you time to work on your own. We’ll also review the upcoming college application timeline so that you know what’s happening next!

Have fun writing! I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

2017-18 SAT & ACT Registration Deadlines

Thinking about taking–or retaking–the SAT and ACT in the fall? It’s time to start planning ahead!

Ensphere students score 220+ points higher than the national average on the SAT and 7 points higher than the national average on the ACT.

How do we do that?

By taking both tests early! Students should sit for both the SAT and the ACT in the fall of their junior year. This leaves students with enough time to receive their score reports and fine-tune their skills before retaking one or both tests in the spring.

Whether you’re a rising senior planning to retake your tests a final time, a rising junior in the midst of your SAT/ACT prep, or a sophomore or younger just looking to get ahead … it’s important to check your calendar and see which 2017-18 testing dates make the most sense for you.

Here are the available dates for the entire year.

SAT Dates:

August 26, 2017 (register by July 28, 2017)

October 7, 2017 (register by September 8, 2017)

November 4, 2017 (register by October 5, 2017)

December 2, 2017 (register by November 2, 2017)

March 10, 2018 (register by February 9, 2018)

May 5, 2018 (register by April 6, 2018)

June 2, 2018 (register by May 3, 2018)

Click here to register for the SAT.

ACT Dates:

September 9, 2017 (register by August 4, 2017)

October 28, 2017 (register by September 22, 2017)

December 9, 2017 (register by November 3, 2017)

February 10, 2018 (register by January 12, 2018)

April 14, 2018 (register by March 9, 2018)

June 9, 2018 (register by May 4, 2018)

July 14, 2018 (register by June 15, 2018)

Click here to register for the ACT.

Financial Aid Alert: Student Loan Interest Rates

The cost of college continues to rise.

Federal Student Loan interest rates for the 2017-2018 school year have been determined, and we’re seeing a marked increase in interest rates for both undergraduate and graduate student loans.

Undergraduate Student Loans:

Starting July 1st, interest rates for the Undergraduate Direct Loan program will rise from 3.76% to 4.45%, an increase of 0.69 percentage points, or 18.4%.

Graduate Student Loans:

The Graduate Direct Loan rate will rise from 5.31% to 6.00%, a 13% increase.

PLUS Loans:

PLUS Loans, available to graduate students and parents of undergraduate students, will rise from 6.31% to 7.00%, a 10.9% increase.

What You Need To Know:

Federal Student Loan interest rates change each year on July 1st. The Federal Student Loan interest rate is based on the May 10th auction of U.S. Treasury notes. These interest rates are fixed for the life of the loan, meaning they apply only to loans disbursed from July 1, 2017 – June 30, 2018. If your loan was issued prior to July 1, 2017, these changes will not impact your student loans.

Student loan debt is the second highest consumer debt category in the U.S. … second only to mortgage debt. And for many families, the cost of college is the #1 most traumatizing financial issue they will face in their family’s lifetime.

But you don’t have to face it alone. Help is out there. Email cps@enspherecps.com to set up a personal consultation and find out if your family is on track.

SAT & ACT: Earlier Is Better!

Ensphere students, you just keep getting better and better!!

We’ve looked at the numbers from our classes of 2017 and 2018, and we’ve noticed some exciting trends.

Higher Scores

Our students’ SAT scores have jumped over 90 points to an average score of 1249 (woo hoo!) and ACT scores have risen to an average of 28.

Earlier Preparation

Why the score increases? Students are listening to our advice and getting started early!

More of you are beginning to study during your freshman and sophomore years, taking both tests by the fall of your junior year, and leaving yourselves with plenty of time to retake the tests.

Record numbers of students are completing our online courses on “Method Test Prep,” and your efforts are paying off. We already have multiple juniors who have achieved a 1520 on the SAT … who’s next? One student so far has earned a 34 on the ACT, and two students aced the Math II SAT Subject Test with a perfect 800! Keep up the great work!

Need to schedule a meeting to discuss your SAT/ACT testing plans? Email cps@enspherecps.com to get started!