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Confusing terminology and unspoken assumptions can make a financial aid letter hard to understand. This following breakdown shows what your real offer—and your real expenses—would be. Each numbered tip corresponds with a line item in the graphic below.

1. Room and board costs typically reflect the school's standard meal plan and standard double room. You can lower your costs by, say, living in a triple or buying a smaller cafeteria contract.

2. You can reduce your "books and supplies" cost by renting textbooks or buying used copies.

3. Financial aid in these letters may include loans, which you have to repay, and scholarships, which you don't.

4. Ask about the terms for renewing any "merit" scholarship in subsequent years. College freshmen's grade point averages usually drop at least 0.5 point from their high school GPAs. So any scholarship requiring more than a 3.0 has a high chance of being lost.

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5. Federal subsidized loans are the most affordable student loans. Interest on borrowing—typically about 4%—doesn't accrue while a student is in school. Freshmen can borrow a maximum of $3,500. The annual limit rises in later years.

6. Federal unsubsidized loans are slightly costlier than subsidized loans because interest accrues while the student is still in school. Freshmen can usually borrow a maximum of $5,500 in combined federal loans.

7. To improve on the school's estimate, research the costs of round-trips to campus at the times your student will be traveling—possibly during peak holiday-fare season.

8. This is for all the little expenses of college life, like laundry and late-night pizza. Plan for higher costs, though, if your child joins a fraternity or sorority.

9. Beware of scholarships with fancy names. One study found that about a third of students would choose a school that offered them an impressive-sounding award rather than a better-value college.

10. Need-based grants are awarded based on your family's financial condition.

11. Parents can get PLUS loans, which are expected to charge about 8% next year (after fees). You qualify if you haven't had a recent bankruptcy or bill delinquency, but be careful: It's easy to borrow more than you can afford to repay.

12. Some colleges call PLUS loans "aid." But many experts say asking parents to borrow isn't really a help. So in this case, the "unmet need" wouldn't be zero dollars, but $13,610—money that would come straight from parents' pockets if they didn't borrow it.