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Published: Aug 04, 2016 4 min read
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You’ve done your college research and have fallen in love with a school that's just out of your reach. The Student Profile for the newly enrolled freshmen class verges on intimidating: Many graduated in the top 10% of their high school class, the mid-50% test scores are above your range, and the class is filled with National Merit semi-finalists, accomplished musicians, published writers, etc.

The “average” student at this college has credentials that are sobering, but you hold the golden ticket—you’re a full-pay candidate. As the cost of college rises and the percentage of students who can afford the full freight continues to decline, the ability to pay has now taken center stage. But will your financial advantage be enough to get you accepted to the school of your dreams?

The simple answer: probably not. Ability to pay is rarely the deciding factor if everything else doesn’t measure up. The school has to want you based on your academic credentials, especially if it’s one of a handful of highly selective colleges that are need-blind. For these institutions, financial need is not considered in the admissions process. So if your ability to pay is the most compelling reason you can offer for that dream school to accept you, don’t become overly hopeful.

When It Might Help

Not applying for financial aid is unlikely to be the tipping point at the most selective and well-endowed colleges. Yet if your dream school is only a slight reach and it relies heavily on tuition to finance its budget, being able to pay may work to your benefit.

Increasingly schools, even in the most selective range, are becoming need-aware, meaning they do factor ability to pay into the equation. Some more intentionally consider a family’s need when crafting a class. Others, largely in the most selective tier, factor in ability to pay only when filling the last 10% of the class or as their financial aid budget becomes more constrained. At that point, if the admission staff is deciding between two equally qualified candidates, the full-pay applicant may have an edge.

So how should you answer the question about seeking financial aid on the Common App? It’s important to answer truthfully. If you know you will qualify for aid and you plan to apply for it, the correct thing to do is to check the “yes” box for the financial need question.

Claiming an ability to pay may help if you are on the cusp and it’s between you and another qualified candidate who has a demonstrated financial need.

But if you are accepted and then apply for financial aid, forget it. I recently asked the dean of admissions at a highly selective school, one that ranks among the top 50 liberal arts colleges, what the consequences might be. His answer was emphatic. Unless there has been a material change in financial circumstances, the family can expect to receive nothing. His message was clear: There’s no gaming the system.

Related: How to Ask Your College for a Bigger Financial Aid Package

Jane Klemmer is an independent educational consultant in Westchester County, N.Y. She advises students and families on college admission and making good academic, social, and financial choices.