The $100,000 Question: Do Test Scores Matter for Merit-Aid?

Let’s not mince words: college is expensive! The latest data for the 2021-2022 school year show the average annual cost of tuition + fees and school-related expenses at a public four-year institution for in-state students to be $27,330, and $44,150 for out-of-state students. For those attending private four-year colleges, the average cost is $55,800.


These are daunting figures to most of us, but the truth is that only a small percentage of students need to pay the full sticker price shown. The key to offsetting the cost of college is finding financial aid and scholarships.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of financial aid: need-based and merit-based. Need-based aid generally comes in the form of government-subsidized grants, loans, and work-study programs, the amounts of which are determined from the FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. (Check out our article from last fall which detailed some of the latest changes to FAFSA and how aid is awarded.)

Merit-based aid is offered by colleges to recruit students and includes scholarships awarded to students for things like demonstrating interest or aptitude in a specific field of study, an identity with a specific group, demographic, or organization, as well as scholarships for talents in areas like athletics and music. Some colleges require an additional application for scholarships like these, but there are a number of colleges that automatically award scholarship dollars to students based on a combination of grades and standardized test scores.

There are potentially thousands of dollars more available to those with the right scores who happen to look in the right places. And we’re not just talking about students with straight-As and double 800s here! Let’s take a look at a few examples of the award amounts students can qualify for simply because of their academic record and test scores.

Utah State University:

Although Utah State went test-optional in 2020 and has extended that policy through the 2022 admissions cycle, they still recommend students submit test scores for automatic, guaranteed awards, the criteria for which are detailed in the table below.


Let’s consider an out-of-state, incoming freshman with a 3.5 GPA and a 29 on the ACT (or a 1330 on the SAT) — a solid student any school would be lucky to have, but not one who would win an automatic merit aid award. However, with a 4-point increase from a 29 to a 33 (or +120 points to a 1450 on the SAT), they’d firmly qualify for the “Scholar” level award at Utah State, amounting to $9,000 awarded over the first two years.

An incoming freshman with a 4.0 GPA and a 29 on the ACT would also qualify for the aforementioned Scholar level award, but imagine if this student also managed a 4-point increase to a 33 (or +120 points to a 1450): they would have the full cost of tuition covered – that’s approximately $32,000!

For students like these, the time and money invested in test prep are well worth it if they can raise their starting scores into a range that saves them thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars per year in college costs.

Texas Tech University:

Texas Tech, another school that is currently test-optional for admissions but not for scholarship consideration, considers a combination of class rank along with test scores to determine merit-aid amounts, which are detailed in the table below.


Consider an incoming freshman who is in the top 10% of their class with a 24 on the ACT (or 1190 on the SAT). This student would qualify automatically for $1,000 per year for four years – a total of $4,000. Just a 1-point increase to a 25 (or +10 points to a 1200) would net this student an additional $2,000 per year, for a total of $12,000 over four years, while a 4-point increase to a 28 (or +110 points to a 1300) would net them a total of $20,000 over four years!

Another incoming freshman in the top 20% who has a 27 (or 1290) would automatically qualify for $8,000 over the course of four years. For this student, a 1-point increase would double that to $16,000 total over the course of four years, and a 4-point increase would triple the award to $24,000 over the same period.

Lake Forest University:

Just as many families make the mistake of not filling out a FAFSA, plenty will also make the mistake of assuming merit-based aid only goes to the very top students with perfect grades and test scores. Hopefully by now, readers can see this couldn’t be further from the truth — the reality is that merit aid is available for a wide range of academic achievement and students should not count themselves out before looking at their options.

Lake Forest, a private liberal arts college on the North Shore of Chicago, provides an excellent example. At Lake Forest, even students with modest credentials can earn significant merit-aid awards. In fact, it’s those very students who often stand to see the most dramatic swings in award amounts for even small score increases.

Consider an incoming freshman who has a 2.9 GPA and 19 on the ACT (or a 1020 on the SAT). A 1-point increase to a 20 (or +10 points to a 1030) would net this student $25K per year. That’s a net total of $100,000 over the course of four years for just a one point improvement on the ACT.


Are These Scores and Scholarships Really in Reach?

We can say from 20 years of experience that the answer is a resounding yes.

In 2020, Applerouth students earned $28.79 million in scholarship awards. Our students who tutored for at least 20 hours and completed their homework along with the appropriate number of mock tests saw average score increases of 5 points on the ACT and 130 points on the SAT. The students we tutor grow in confidence and knowledge and it is especially exciting to see the effort they put into preparing for the tests pay off – literally.

When it comes to merit-aid, you don’t necessarily need to be at the top of your class with the highest test scores to earn awards (though scholarship dollars tend to be directly proportional to numbers like your GPA and test scores). So, students would be wise to familiarize themselves with the specific merit-aid policies of their prospective schools as a simple way to reduce the overall cost of college. For more information, talk with your school counselor, the admissions officers at your favorite colleges, and use reputable sources like IECA and HECA member consultants, and websites like and

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