Surviving and Thriving During Financial Aid’s ‘Cruelest Month’

Melissa Maichle .

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain

-T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

If your institution has a May 1 decision date, you probably agree with T.S. Eliot — April is tough. Emotions run high when the family’s financial resources do not match the student’s aspirations. So, it’s time to pull out your best customer skills to make these conversations easier and maybe even satisfy a caller or two. Here are some reminders about how you can defuse those difficult conversations.

  1. Don’t take it personally because it is not. When the caller says ‘you’ screwed up, they mean the institution did, not you yourself. Not taking it personally is one of the harder things to do and our natural reflex is to begin defending ourselves; however, that is more likely to escalate the strong emotion. Instead, just listen and when the caller has gotten their frustration off their chest, turn the conversation to how to move forward and resolve the problem.
  • An apology goes a long way. Even if you had nothing to do with the situation the caller finds themselves in and even if it was their own mistakes that landed them in the fire, don’t play the blame game. Apologize on behalf of the institution and re-direct the conversation as above. Sometimes a simple ‘I’m sorry’ can change the whole tone of the conversation.
  • Listen. Ask questions. Understand. In our blog Master the Art of Negotiation we share how by better understanding the other party’s position it is easier to find a solution where both of you come out winners. It may very well be that the student calling to ask for more scholarship money really just needs help financing the remaining cost for the semester so they can stay enrolled — when that’s the case, any combination of additional aid or advice on other financing options like loans and payment plans would meet the need.

Finally, you are supposed to be the expert, so it’s hard to say ‘I don’t know.’ Do it anyway. Yes, it takes extra time to look up or ask someone for the answer to the question and then call the student to share it, but the consequences of mis-advising families result in even more time spent dealing with the fallout.

While these tactics often result in longer conversations, you’ll find fewer repeat callers shopping for a ‘better’ answer, plus you’ll earn “good will”, which will serve your office well when you can’t do everything your students are asking of you. And, if you’re having a hard time keeping up with the volume of calls and emails to your office, check out the Higher Education Assistance Group’s Interim Staffing Solutions or email us at