explains complex processes with approachable language and understandable multimedia. As with all student-facing communications, should have a strong connection with users. We believe financial aid communication can and should be fun and easy to read.
When writing content it is important to keep the following in mind:
Audience - Write for our primary audiences – prospective, admitted, and current undergraduate students, who have a wide age range of ~13-30.
Subject & Knowledge - Asking questions and learning about financial aid is often personal and overwhelming. Students may have a limited or basic understanding of financial aid and are looking for help. Remember to be sensitive of this when writing content.
Platform - Answers may be delivered in a small chat window on a web or phone browser, or via SMS text message. Content should be short, less formal, and easy to read. Remember our writing is for chat responses, not an article or webpage.
Voice & Tone - To achieve a positive, personal, dependable experience, it’s important to keep voice and tone consistent and recognizable. Learn more about VirtualAdvisor’s voice and tone, for guidance and examples of writing.
Below are a few guidelines for writing content. For more details and examples review the sections below.
Active voice - Write in the active voice and avoid passive voice.
Readability - Aim for Grade 8 or below. Grade 9 is okay. View resources to check your grade.
Word Count - Answers will vary but try to stick to 50-120 words or 1-3 sentences when possible.
Avoid slang & jargon - Write in plain English. Avoid both industry and cultural, slang and jargon.
Capitalization - Only use for proper nouns, titles, or names.
Acronyms - Only use when they are commonly understood or have been defined.
Emojis & GIFs - Use sparingly, when appropriate, and for certain conversations.
Positive writing - Positive language is preferred. Avoid using negative language.
Video - Reference when possible, but as a supplement to a helpful or friendly response.
We want to create engaging, short responses that support digital reading. In order to be clear and concise, we prefer to use the active voice. The active voice helps the student identify the subject of the sentence. In the following example, the person who submits the form is essential information. Omitting that leads to a confusing and impersonal sentence.
Passive: The form should be submitted to the financial aid office.
Active: You should submit the form to the financial aid office.
The passive voice is usually longer than the active voice, and wordy instructions are hard to follow. When in doubt, cut directly to the verb and give the reader clear directions.
Passive: The FAFSA should be completed each year. It will be required every year you are in college and looking to use financial aid.
Active: Complete the FAFSA each year. You will need to submit it every year you are in college and looking to use financial aid.
There will be times when the passive voice is necessary to make a response clear and direct. For example, “the financial aid office is required to check” is acceptable to use. View resources for a tool to check your writing for active and passive voice.
Readability & Word Count
Financial aid content and responses can be complex, so we aim to be as clear and concise as possible. Additionally, most responses will be read digitally on a phone, tablet, or computer. It’s important to keep our word count and readability grade level below are certain threshold.
Aim for all responses to be between 50-120 words when possible and try to keep the readability at a Grade 8 or below. Higher grades and word counts may necessary for longer, complicated answers.
View resources for a tool to check your word count and readability grade level.
Avoid Slang & Jargon
This includes both industry and cultural references. Financial aid content is confusing as is, and we need to deliver clear messages to a broad audience. It’s important to not use financial aid office jargon that only a financial aid officer might know. may be talking to students from all over the world, so it’s also important to not use cultural references that might not be universally understood.
Capitalization & Acronyms
Try to only use acronyms when they are commonly known, or when they are less confusing than the full name or phrase. When appropriate write out the acronym to introduce it. Acronyms like “DFA” for “Director of Financial Aid” or “NPC” for “Net Price Calculator” may only be understood by financial aid offices. Alternatively, students will most likely recognize “FAFSA” instead of “the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.”
Be careful with unnecessary capitalization. Capitals are only necessary for proper nouns, titles, or names of forms. Remember to be consistent!
For examples of how to properly use capitalization and acronyms, review best practices.
Emojis & GIFs
When appropriate, emojis can be incorporated to add a little personality and relatability to our content. In the right context, using emojis demonstrates is up on current communication trends and can sometimes make a response more familiar, conversational, or personal.
Emojis should never take away from the conversation or distract the user and should be universally understood. Emojis and GIFs should be used sparingly. Emojis should be rarely used outside of chitchat and GIFs should only be used in chitchat. Remember to use your best judgement!
For examples of how to properly use emojis, review best practices.
Inquiring, reading, and learning about financial aid is often overwhelming, personal, and stressful. It’s important when possible to avoid negative language and/or associations. Clarity is key and keeping a positive tone will also help avoid confusion.
For examples of how to write positively and avoid negative language, review best practices.
Certain answers may be opportunities to make connections to share content from our library and to reference relevant videos and links. Videos should be given as supplement content to a response or as part of a conversation tree. Avoid immediately directing students to a video without a thoughtful response.
Below are best practices to incorporate or avoid when writing responses.
Only use commonly known acronyms. Always spell out unknown acronyms the first time you introduce them.
✔️ Example: “The Student Aid Report (SAR) provides a summary of information you submitted on your FAFSA. You should review it for errors. If everything looks good, your SAR is all set.”
Don’t use lesser known acronyms unless you’ve defined them. There’s no need to spell out acronyms that are commonly understood.
❌ Example: “The SAR provides a summary of information you submitted on your Free Application for Federal Student Aid.”
How to write positively
Incorporate positive language and words of encouragement.
✔️ Example: “Remember to submit your document before January 1. Send in your document before the deadline, so your application is complete and ready for review.”
Avoid negative, alarming, stressful language.
❌ Example: “Don’t forget to submit your document before January 1! You must send in your document, ASAP. Right now, your application is incomplete and could be denied!”
How to write in the active voice
Note: For details on why and how this is one of our best practices, read the active voice section.
Use the active voice and identify the subject in your sentence.
✔️ Example: “You should submit the form to the financial aid office.”
Don’t use the passive voice or omit the subject.
❌ Example: “The form should be submitted to the financial aid office.”
When to use “families” instead of “parents”
Use “what you and your family can afford” or “available to assist students and their families.”
Avoid using phrases like “what you and your parents can afford” or “available to assist students and their parents.”
How to reference students who apply for or receive aid
Use “students receiving financial aid” or “if you receive financial aid”
Avoid using the phrase “students on financial aid” or “if you’re on financial aid”
Only refer to age when it’s relevant to what you’re writing about.
✔️ Examples: “Laws limit those under the age of 13 from completing the FAFSA online.”
“A 529 plan is a tax advantaged college savings plan that allows students and their families to save money…”
Avoid referring to age, and never use women or older relatives as examples of novice or beginners.
❌ Examples: “It is so simple your mother can do it.”
“A 529 plan is a tax advantaged college savings plan that allows kids and their families to save money…”
Use gender neutral language wherever possible.
Use “they”, “them”, “their” as singular pronouns. We don’t know preferred pronouns and/or are writing about hypothetical people.
✔️ Example: “Contact the financial aid office to cancel their aid”
Avoid words and phrases that indicate gender bias.
Don’t use “he/she” or “his/her” as singular pronouns.
❌ Example: “Contact the financial aid office to cancel his/her aid.”
Only use in chitchat or conversational responses. Make sure emojis are appropriate and universally understood.
✔️ Examples: “Thank you! financial aid is my favorite topic. ?”
“Congratulations! ?Welcome to the Class of 2024! ?”
Don’t use in informative or sensitive responses. Never use emojis that need context or could have a double meaning.
❌ Examples: “Thank you! financial aid is my favorite topic. ?”
“Congratulations! ? Welcome to the Class of 2024! ?”
Capitalizing certain majors
Note: Defer to school preference, but for consistency and best practice follow this general rule.
Only capitalize languages.
✔️ Examples: English, Spanish, business, biology, history, government & economics
Don’t capitalize majors unless they are a language.
Below are commonly used words, names, or phrases that should be used in responses for consistency. We follow the U.S. Department of Education for capitalization and nomenclature best practices.
Guideline & Example
Federal vs. federal
Only capitalize when part of a proper noun or title.
When referring to the program use the full program title, otherwise use “work-study” for short.
Only capitalize loan titles or names. Graduate and parent are types of PLUS loans and are not an official title.
Subsidized & Unsubsidized loans
When referring to subsidized and unsubsidized loans in general these words should be kept in all lower-case. If discussing specific subsidized and unsubsidized loans, then they should be capitalized.
Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
EFC should always be capitalized when spelling out the full acronym.
cost of attendance (COA)
COA should always be kept in lower-case when spelling out the full acronym.
Depending on the question FSEOG may be acceptable to use given the length of the full acronym. When necessary spell-out the full grant title.
The Hemingway App is an editor that will give you a readability score for your writing. It also highlights sentences and words for difficulty, passive voice, grammar, fluency, and sentence structure in order to help your writing read and look better.
The CEFR checker is a tool that determines whether texts are appropriate for beginner, intermediate, or advanced learners of English or Spanish. test