You probably know already that if you earn a high score on the SAT, you will attract the attention of colleges and universities, inspiring them to mail you their glossy brochures in hopes that they can fill their incoming class with students like you. Yes, the SAT reasoning test is designed to indicate a student's academic performance, but it's easy to forget that your SAT score is of interest to more than just the deans of admission of the world. A high SAT score is also a valuable asset for students applying for financial aid and scholarships. In other words, if you devote long hours to preparing for the SAT, you may be able to turn your hard work into cash. Many financial aid and scholarship programs, especially merit-based programs, will give considerable preference to students who have performed exceptionally well on the SAT.
Like colleges, financial aid and scholarship programs each have their own ideas of what makes a student worthy, which is why they want to know all about you, and why they have the frustrating expectation that you should put your whole life down on paper for them to judge. Most of them consider the same three criteria--GPA, extracurricular activities, and SAT scores--though some will emphasize one over the others.
But as tuition prices rise, more and more students (and their parents) clamor for the limited supply of financial aid available to them. That means the people who have to decide which students get their money now have more and more applications to consider. They need a way to narrow down the options quickly. That's one reason why SAT scores are taking on more and more significance: it takes far less time to read 500 SAT scores than to read 500 paragraphs about extracurricular activities. Besides, many readers can afford to throw away the applications that don't feature an SAT score over 2200 because after they do so, there will still be plenty of applications left.
Of course, a student's GPA, like his or her SAT score, does come in the form of an easy-to-read number, but those who award merit-based scholarships want to be objective, and so they may veer away from selecting their recipients based on GPA. They understand that GPA is, to an extent, subjective. Some teachers grade more leniently than others, and a student who carries a 3.7 GPA might have had a 4.0 if she'd had different teachers or gone to a different school. To many people who award scholarships, an SAT score makes a more attractive metric simply because, for whatever flaws it may have, the test offers something invaluable: a standardized scoring system. Either a student chose the right answer and gained a point or chose a wrong answer and lost a quarter of a point. There are no messy questions about whether the student earned a high score by charming a proctor.
The connection between SAT scores and scholarship/financial aid programs varies from program to program, but it is worth examining in general terms. Not all financial aid programs are merit-based, but many still require solid SAT scores for eligibility. Because each college has its own financial aid programs and policies, it's a good idea to check out a school’s policy before applying. However, the majority of schools still do use the SAT and other standardized test scores to determine eligibility. In fact, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) recently found that nearly four out of five schools relied on these scores in their applications for merit-based aid programs. The good news is that if a student is accepted by a school that claims to be need-blind, that student’s SAT score should be enough to award her whatever financial aid she needs.
Of course, students can collect financial aid from sources other than their colleges or universities. There is a plethora of merit-based scholarships available from philanthropists, corporations, and non-profit organizations who wish to reach out to their favorite subset of the best and brightest. No matter how unusual a student’s interests, there’s usually a scholarship to match. For example, vegetarian community leaders can apply for a $10,000 scholarship from the Vegetarians Resource Group, and skilled accordionists may win $1,000 from the American Accordion Musicological Society.
Not all merit-based scholarships rely heavily on SAT scores to determine a student’s eligibility, but many do. The National Merit Scholarship, for instance, establishes a first round of finalists by looking at scores from the PSAT, an optional test before the SAT. And even the most activity-specific scholarships, such as athletic scholarships, look at a student’s SAT score.
Merit-based scholarship programs are notoriously selective, many even more so than the majority of colleges, and chances are good they will include SAT score as a key criterion. As important as the SAT is for college applications, a high score can be just as essential for students who seek financial aid. So next time you pull out your flash cards, study right triangles, or write a timed essay to practice for the test, think of all the college money that could be yours because you pushed yourself to get a higher score.