How a good ACT score can help your student secure a merit award

5 Jun 2017
Ron Michalak

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune of attending several college planning seminars, including a terrific one that Breakaway hosted in May with Julie Ekkers. As the parent of a current high school junior and a college freshman, I have taken in the information as eagerly as the fellow parents in attendance. All of us are trying to identify ways of helping our students not only gain admission to a college that is a good fit, but also to make college as affordable as possible.

As we approach the summer, with many rising juniors and seniors anticipating the fall tests, I thought it was an appropriate time to reflect on how a good test score can not only improve your chances of getting into a great college, but also help significantly drive down the cost.

As you may know, aside from purely need-based financial aid, many colleges award scholarships based on merit. Merit scholarships are awarded to students based on academic achievement, which is often closely tied to GPA and ACT scores. At this time with most of our students – rising juniors and seniors – while one’s GPA can be difficult to improve within a short time frame, one’s ACT score can certainly be improved in the short term. Because many colleges use ACT scores as a driver for identifying scholarship recipients, ACT (or SAT) prep can be an effective component of a strategy to pursue merit scholarships.

To be clear, many of the nation’s most selective schools only award aid to students who they believe can’t afford tuition, since they say that all of their students are exemplary. However, many outstanding colleges and universities do award merit scholarships, and many extend such scholarships to a surprising percentage of their students. Below, you can find a list of 24 well-known colleges and universities that extend merit awards to at least 30% of their student body.

Anecdotally, over the years, I have heard from a number of parents that their students’ test scores really mattered not only in terms of admission to a particular college, but also in terms of securing merit scholarships. For example, one student we worked with came to us with a 26. The student completed 10 lessons with us and moved his score to a 30. The four-point difference in his score earned him a $20,000 merit scholarship at the University of St. Thomas, about a 17-fold return on their investment in prep. Another parent told me that his daughter earned a merit scholarship to Colorado College, based in large part on her five-point improvement to a 33 on her ACT. He believed the return on his test prep investment was 20-fold. While every student and his or her situation is unique, you can see that improvements in test scores can yield handsome returns on an investment in test prep.

Below are some examples of colleges and universities that offer merit awards and the percentage of students at the college receiving non-need based aid:

  • Cooper Union, NY, 59%
  • Olin College of Engineering, MA, 55%
  • Rhodes College, TN, 53%
  • Trinity University, TX, 51%
  • University of Puget Sound, WA, 48%
  • Denison University, OH, 45%
  • DePauw University, IN, 42%
  • Gonzaga University, WA, 42%
  • University of Miami, FL, 42%
  • Furman University, SC, 41%
  • College of Wooster, OH, 40%
  • Marquette University, WI, 40%
  • University of Denver, CO, 39%
  • Creighton University, NE, 37%
  • Oberlin College, OH, 37%
  • Lawrence University, WI, 36%
  • Tulane University, LA, 36%
  • SMU, TX, 35%
  • Drake University, IA, 34%
  • Iowa State University, IA, 33%
  • St. Louis University, MO, 33%
  • Butler University, IN, 31%
  • University of Vermont, VT, 31%
  • Whitman College, WA, 30%

As you can see, there are some pretty impressive colleges on that list, with a sizable share of each student body enjoying access to non need-based scholarships.

Here are a few more insights into the process of pursuing merit scholarships:

  1. Spending time finding the right college, particularly colleges that offer merit awards, is likely (much) more beneficial than spending time applying for scholarships. The colleges themselves typically offer about 35% of the money available for students.
  2. Not all colleges offer merit scholarships. In order to qualify for merit scholarships, you need to make sure that the schools to which your student is applying offer merit aid.
  3. Your student’s candidacy for merit aid can depend greatly on his/her grades and test scores being in the top 25%-33% of the incoming class. While GPA is not that maneuverable in the short term, ACT scores are. One to two more points on the ACT can mean thousands of extra dollars in scholarships. A modest investment in test prep can lead to scholarships that are 10-20 times the cost of test prep.
  4. Living out of state can actually help you save money. Many schools like to promote the fact that they have students from every state in the country, so a Minnesota student might be especially attractive to a school in South Carolina, New Hampshire or Oklahoma. One estimate suggests that students who live out of state can get between $2,000-$15,000 in scholarship money.
  5. You should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (, even if you don’t believe you will qualify for need-based aid. Families with incomes deemed to be above the need threshold can be attractive targets for fundraising; to get your personal financial information, schools have actually reduced the fee for tuition by as much as $1,800 for families who complete the FAFSA. Completing the CSS/Financial Aid Profile, a College Board financial aid form that allows you to simultaneously apply for financial aid and scholarships at nearly 400 colleges and universities, can yield additional tuition discounts of up to $2,500.

Finally, I thought I would bring your attention to an article that appeared in this past weekend’s NY Times. The somewhat provocatively titled article, “How Colleges Know What You Can Afford (and the Limits of That Tactic)“, addresses the use of price discrimination by a number of private colleges, and how that tactic might be hurting such colleges in the longer run.

My colleague, Julie Ekkers, an independent college counselor, can help you and your student make sense of this daunting process and find a college that is a great fit. From developing college lists, to developing essays and supplements, to helping get ready for an admissions interview, Julie can be a terrific resource. For rising seniors, Julie is offering a special summer boost package for $650 that includes four one-hour consultations to develop, review, edit—and finish!—the Common Application essay as well as one of any of the following three items: developing, reviewing, and editing a supplemental application question response; creating a catalog of extracurricular and summer activities and employment; admissions interview preparation and practice. Feel free to reach out to Julie at [email protected].