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. They go after each other 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 SAT/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 the 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 $47.50 to retake the SAT or $50.50 to retry the ACT, but it’s important to understand that this small fee plus hours of dedicated preparation can be worth tens of thousands of dollars in merit aid money.
Second time is a charm
Students typically take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the fall or 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.
How to study
Research shows that studying for the SAT/ACT yields positive results. Thus, it is critical for students to carve out time for concentrated study prior to taking the exam. Studying does not necessarily mean taking high-priced Kaplan courses or paying exorbitant fees for one-on-one tutoring. We recommend fully utilizing the Khan Academy’s cost-free SAT prep courses. In fact, a study released by the College Board found that just 20 hours of targeted practice through Khan Academy resulted in an average score gain of 115 points. For those taking the ACT, you too have a free online resource with the ACT’s own ACT Academy.
Higher test scores = more 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 can be found for free in our Dataverse. The second is to look at the 75th percentile of SAT/ACT scores for accepted students, which can be found in the Entering Class Statistics section of our Dataverse. 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.
To remove the guesswork for those chasing merit aid, a fair number of public and some private schools offer defined eligibility criteria, usually in the areas of GPA and SAT/ACT scores. For example, Baylor University applicants with an SAT score above 1380 or an ACT of 31 are eligible to receive $44,842 off their tuition bill. Students who maintain a 3.5 GPA while at the university will receive a total of discount of just under $180,000 over their four years of study.
The University of Mississippi 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 3.0 GPA and a 1200 SAT/25 ACT, they will receive a minimum of $7,000 per year in aid. However, if a student were to raise their SAT score from a 1200 to 1230—a minor jump—they would be entitled to $12,000 per year in aid. Over four years, getting a couple more questions correct on an SAT retake would save you and additional $20K in tuition.
Even in the case of private schools where the merit aid lines are not as clearly delineated, you can bet that small increases in SAT/ACT scores will still work to your benefit. Drew University in New Jersey advertises annual merit awards of between $5,000 and $20,000. While a student with an 1150 may not be able to measure the precise impact of raising her score to a 1220—it’s a fair assumption that it could easily be worth five figures.
Test-optional still reward high SATs and/or ACTs
The test-optional movement continues to gain steam, currently with over 1,000 schools nationwide, including many selective institutions. 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 significant role in aid decisions at many test-optional schools.
Your dedication will pay off
The only thing mastering the ability to maneuver 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 can impact not only your undergraduate years but your adult years as well.
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).