For teens who are unhappy with their standardized test scores this decision is easy. Maybe you scored a 1050 the first time and know that you need an 1150 to have a realistic chance at gaining admission into your dream school. A low score thus serves a clarion call to rally onto the test-prep battlefield. You crack open the study books, reserve a virtual timeshare at the Khan Academy, and then pony up the $46 for another shot at the test. Those in this scenario have a pretty straightforward course of action.

Deciding whether or not to retake the SAT or ACT becomes more of conundrum when a student’s opening salvo in the standardized test battle was a rousing success. For example, a junior planning on applying to a state school scores where the average SAT is a 1230 scores a 1290 on the first try. This student’s counselor assures them that this score, considered along with their complete academic profile, puts them in great position to earn acceptance at their first-choice school. So, in this scenario, one can just rest on their SAT laurels and return their sole focus to the classroom, right?

That answer is not so straightforward.

Higher test scores = more merit aid

Enlightened College Applicants know that getting into college is not the ultimate goal of the admissions process; you also want to make your undergraduate education as affordable as possible. For many middle and upper-middle class families, obtaining a significant amount of need-based financial aid is unlikely. These folks and their college-bound teens need to instead focus their sights in netting merit aid offers from prospective institutions.

The best ways to position yourself for success in this arena is terrific grades in rigorous high school courses and earning SAT/ACT scores that are well above-average for your target colleges. An easy way to approximate where you need to land is to review the 75th percentile of SAT/ACT scores for accepted students at your schools. If your score falls at or above that number, chances are that you will get a substantial offer.

Defined scholarships

To remove the guesswork for those chasing merit aid, some public and private schools offer defined eligibility criteria, usually in the areas of GPA and SAT/ACT scores. For example, Fordham University offers $15K Dean’s Scholarships for applicants with an A average and a 1460 SAT or 32 ACT score. At Hendrix College, similar stats will get you a free ride including board and other fees.

McDaniel College in Maryland offers a chart of guaranteed minimum scholarship awards for those meeting certain criteria. This allows prospective students to be confident that if they have a 3.75 GPA and a 1320 SAT/28 ACT, they will receive a minimum of $23,000 per year in aid. Miami University of Ohio also provides a merit aid grid showing that a student in the 1280-1380 SAT range is eligible for an annual scholarship of up to 8k but someone between a 1390 and 1470 is eligible for 12k per year.

You can see how impactful improving your SAT/ACTs can be when it comes to scoring merit aid offers. In our Miami of Ohio scenario, ten extra SAT points could very well save you and your family $16,000 over four years of study.

Test-optional schools

The test-optional movement continues to gain steam, currently with over 950 schools nationwide. However, it is important to realize that even at these test-optional colleges where standardized tests are not required for admission, they can still play an important role in merit-aid determination. While some schools go as far as to publicly pronounce that they do not factor SAT/ACT scores into scholarship decisions, our experience tells us that they still play a sizable role in aid decisions at many test-optional schools.

Second time is a charm

Many teens take their maiden standardized test voyage in the second semester of their junior year (for advice on when to take the test, click here). They do so right in the middle of learning important academic concepts in the 11th grade classrooms, essential literary and mathematical material that is tested by the College Board and the ACT.

Therefore, it is little surprise that research shows that students improve significantly the second time they take the tests. Second time ACT takers see, on average, a 2.9 point rise in their cumulative score while repeat SATers see an average gain of roughly 40 points. As we can see in the merit aid examples above, this small improvement can quite easily result in the acquisition of a not-so-small amount of merit aid.

Summer study

When you take the SAT in the winter/spring of your junior year, you are right in the middle of the busiest academic days of your high school career. This makes the subsequent summer, when life begins to slow down a bit, the ideal time to reengage with studying for your second standardized test bout.

A common misconception is that the only way to really kick-butt on the SAT or ACT is to fork over big money for a private tutor. It will please you to know that low-cost and free options abound. On the low-cost end, purchasing a prep book can be a wonderful investment for a self-motivated teen who will commit to hours of independent study and practice exams. On the free side, the Khan Academy’s SAT prep courses which launched in 2016 have been found to highly beneficial. In fact, a study released this year by the College Board found that just 20 hours of targeted practice through Khan Academy resulted in an average score gain of 115 points. Be on the lookout for the debut of the ACT Academy in spring 2018 which promises comparable free test prep for ACT takers.

Key Takeaways
  • Even if retaking the SAT/ACT is not necessary for gaining admission into your target schools, it can help you earn larger merit aid offers.
  • Some schools explicitly state what scholarship awards are available based on standardized test scores and GPA.
  • Even test-optional schools often take SAT/ACT performance into account when awarding merit aid.
  • Research shows that students naturally score better on standardized tests the second time they sit for them.
  • Low-cost or completely free opportunities to study abound. Take advantage of them and test your way to a lower tuition!
Dave Bergman

Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).