Widely considered one of the best documentaries of the 2000s, The King of Kong takes you deep within the surprisingly fascinating subculture of competitive retro video gaming. The film tells the story of two middle-aged men competing to obtain the world record in Donkey Kong, a rudimentary arcade game from the early 80s, with such cutthroat ferocity that you would think millions of dollars or perhaps even eternal life was at stake—in reality, only bragging rights are on the line. They stay up in the wee hours, nestled in their garages, trying desperately to unlock additional points and outdo their competitor. So, you ask, what in the heck does this have to do with testing your way to lower tuition?
Most people approach endeavors in life, whether we’re talking about Donkey Kong or the SATs/ACT, as challenges to be conquered and then quickly moved on from. If a college-bound junior scores well on their SAT/ACT and feels that that score will be good enough to secure admission at the schools which they are interested, they typically refocus themselves on their coursework, extracurricular activities, and life outside of school. While this approach is completely understandable, students who take the King of Kong approach to standardized tests often make out with, well, a whole lot of quarters. It costs less than $55 to retake the SAT or ACT but it’s important to understand that 55 bucks plus hours of dedicated preparation can be worth thousands upon thousands of dollars in merit aid money.
Many public and private schools offer guaranteed scholarships to students that meet defined criteria, usually in the areas of GPA and SAT/ACT scores. For example Hartwick College, a private liberal arts school in New York, offers five different scholarships levels, the highest of which grants $26,000 per year to students with an A average and at least a 1260 SAT/28 ACT score. West Virginia University, a public institution has a range of scholarships for students with GPAs ranging from 3.0-3.8 and SAT scores from 1030-1340. At WVU, the amounts awarded to non-residents are much greater than scholarships for West Virginia residents, who already enjoy a greatly reduced in-state tuition.
Other schools do not offer a 100% guarantee on these scholarships, but still state minimum SAT/ACT requirements for consideration. One such school is The University of Kentucky which requires applicants to their top scholarship to have an unweighted 3.8 GPA and a 1440 SAT/34 ACT score. While students possessing the requisite credentials are not guaranteed the awards as in the cases above, winners receive quite a bounty including full tuition, room & board, a stipend, a new iPad, and cash to use while studying abroad.
Other merit aid
Even at colleges where scholarship criteria is not explicitly laid out, SAT/ACT scores play a huge role in determining which applicants receive offers of merit aid. Remember, the point of non-need based merit aid from an institutional standpoint is to offer enough of a discount to attract top talented students. There are two metrics that will clue you in on your chances of scoring merit aid at a given college or university. The first is the percentage of students that receive merit aid, numbers which are readily accessible online. The second is to look at the 75th percentile of SAT/ACT scores for accepted students, also easy to track down online or in literally any college guidebook. If your score falls at or above that number and a given school is known for being relatively generous with merit aid, chances are you will get a substantial offer.
Test-optional still reward high SATs
Remember, just because a school is willing to admit an applicant without consideration of SAT scores, they are still less likely to award a scoreless applicant merit aid. Some test-optional institutions explicitly state on their websites that they will not take the submission of standardized test scores into consideration when making merit aid decisions. In our experience, regardless of such proclamations, strong scores always impact award decisions. Even test-optional institutions are still concerned about their rankings in U.S. News and will dish out merit aid to reel in candidates with exceptional standardized tests scores.
Second time is a charm
Students typically take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the spring of their junior year. Those who elect to retake the test the following fall improve their overall score by an average of 40 points. It makes sense that students would receive a natural boost for two reasons: 1) it’s not their first rodeo, they know the routine, the timing of the test, the format, etc. and 2) they’ve been exposed to more relevant academic material in the classroom since the last sitting. And these advantages don’t even account for the biggest difference of all—you have an entire summer to learn the secrets of the SAT/ACT backward and forward.
Study hard the summer before senior year
We even recommend taking the test again in December as you near the end of your first senior year semester. You’ve likely been exposed to even more challenging academic content that will make some of the most difficult questions on the exam less mysterious and unfamiliar. Your scores may not be available when you submit your application but they will be available to schools by the time they are pondering merit aid decisions.
Studying does not necessarily mean taking high-priced Kaplan courses or paying exorbitant fees for one-on-one tutoring. Burying your nose in a prep book can be just as effective if you are truly self-motivated and committed. Take sample test after sample test and read the detailed explanations provided on every question you get wrong. Trust us—it works.
Your dedication will pay off
The only thing mastering maneuvering Mario up a series of platforms to depose an oversized ape will get you is a good reputation among a couple dozen socially-awkward grown men. However, obsessive dedication to the SAT/ACT, even just for a brief spurt of time, can earn you and your family significant tuition discounts, money that will can impact not only your undergraduate years but your adult years as well.