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How do Test Optional Schools Award Merit Scholarships?

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Written by Jennifer Willcoxon November 9th, 2021

I have many years of financial aid experience, from a federal work-study student to associate director of financial aid, with many stops along the way. I started as a federal work-study student in the financial aid office at Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis and became a financial aid counselor upon graduation.  I then accepted a position as a financial aid counselor at St. Louis University. From there I joined the student-lending world, where I spent a decade working for Bank One and JP Morgan Chase marketing federal and private student loans to colleges in the Southeast. Before joining College Coach, I was the associate director of financial aid at Albany Medical College.
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by Jennifer Willcox, former financial aid officer at Albany Medical College Merit aid in our new test optional world is a foreign concept to many students. The Center for Fair and Open Testing listed over 1,700 accredited four-year colleges and universities with ACT/SAT optional testing policies for fall 2022 admission. You may have heard your mom, dad, older brother, or sister talk about receiving a merit scholarship based on a certain GPA and SAT/ACT test scores, and now you are questioning how applying test optional will impact merit awards. Holistic Approach Many test optional colleges are moving to a holistic approach for merit awarding. This approach looks closely at all pieces of the college application when awarding merit scholarships, including high school rigor, curriculum, essays, activity lists, and letters of recommendation. According to an article by Joyce Lantz, the evaluation process for the University of Notre Dame Scholars' Program will continue to include the following: the student’s academic performance in high school and a review of the rigor of the curriculum pursued, along with essays, letters of recommendation, and the student’s extracurricular activities. Lehigh University uses the same holistic approach to award their merit scholarships. For some of their merit awards however, the applicant may need to fill out a separate supplemental scholarship application. Testing Still Required At the University of Alabama, to qualify for automatic merit scholarships, students must provide a test score and official transcript. Applicants may indicate they do not want their test scores included in the review of their application for admission but can still submit test scores for automatic merit scholarship consideration by May 1. The State University of New York has suspended testing requirements for admissions for the 2022-23 academic year, but may still require scores for certain programs (i.e. Division 1 Athletics). The State of Florida’s scholarship program notes in the Bright Futures Handbook (2022-2023) that test scores are required for 2022-23 scholarship awards. In summary, many colleges are now test optional and have adopted a holistic approach to awarding merit scholarships at their individual institutions. At the same time students are studying for, taking, and submitting tests results since some schools and organizations still maintain a traditional method of awarding merit scholarships or use a variation of both as outlined above. Students who find themselves applying to institutions where merit aid is a possibility should research each college’s merit requirements. You can find most scholarship requirements outlined on the college’s website. If you can’t locate them or they are not clear to you, a quick phone call or email to the college’s admissions office asking the requirements and deadlines will ensure you don’t miss out on any merit opportunities.

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