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Paying For College: Test Scores and Merit Aid

High SATS lead to college money

The process for awarding merit aid is shrouded in mystery. While there is evidence of a holistic evaluation, much like admission to college, there is increasing evidence that busy admissions officials look at test scores primarily. As is the case whenever I discuss anything related to admission, I’m not advocating this is the way it should be but rather simply reflecting “it is what it is”.

Admissions offers have candidly told many of our clients that an increased SAT or ACT score would position their children for merit aid. I’ve seen this paradigm grow pervasive throughout a decade of doing this work. With the increasing number of applicants to schools, admissions officials look to test scores has a uniform factor to decide which students are awarded merit aid. Specifically, when a student has SAT or ACT scores that exceed the median of the school, then there is a far greater likelihood that the student will be awarded merit aid.

I do realize that many parents note the Machiavellian reason. Schools are interested in bolstering their rankings and enrolling students with higher test scores does provide a boost. But, in defense of admissions officials, there are reasons related to expediency and objectivity as well.

Regarding expediency, once students are admitted the variances between students are thin. Outside of special cases, admitted students have grades, test scores, and activities that are within the parameters desired by the school. Having to examine the now very subtle distinctions between students, particularly when pressed by harried parents on the phone, is beyond time consuming. Test scores are the easiest factor to quickly examine.

Objectivity is the other reason. Picture yourself as a busy admission official figuring out how to dole out merit aid. How does one compare an All New England trumpet player from East Lyme, CT with an Eagle Scout from Killingworth, CT? It is extremely difficulty to compare students on the basis of the quality of activities. What about grades? A 3.5 GPA from Choate cannot possibly be considered equivalent to a 3.5 GPA from a typical public school in Mississippi.   But, how much of an advantage should be given to the Choate student? Test scores are the only apples to apples comparison that can be made.

Fortunately, SAT and ACT scores are also often the easiest factor to increase. Studying to increase test scores often proves to be a highly lucrative part-time job.