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  • Jeff Burke

How an ACT prep course can help you reduce the cost of college

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

This blog is a companion piece to the third and final installment of my discussion with Steve O’Toole of O’Toole Educational Services on how an ACT prep class can be of benefit.

As we discussed in part 1 of our conversation, high schoolers take the ACT test to either enhance their odds at getting into the school of their choice or help to secure scholarships due to their academic track record. I do not claim to have any expertise as a college admissions expert, but I do work with families to help them find colleges that are a financial fit for them. This is where the ACT can be a valuable asset.

To understand what an ACT score might be worth in terms of scholarships we need to first understand the different type of college profiles and how they award scholarships. One of the things that surprises many families is when their child achieves a high score on the ACT and doesn’t receive scholarships from every school they apply to. Each school has their own approach to attracting students and criteria for scholarships.

There are many sources of scholarship money for prospective college students. First, there are numerous scholarships given by local organizations and these tend to be in smaller amounts. Next, there are scholarships given out through the university via departments or various memorial funds. These can be for large dollars but are usually awarded to a single student or at the most a select few and many come with a specific set of criteria to meet. I call these the “George Anderson memorial scholarships”. These might be awarded to a single student majoring in a specific field and meeting some other criteria. The ACT might help in getting these scholarships, but it has very hard to count on receiving any of these as there are so few recipients. By far the biggest source of scholarship dollars is awarded simply based on your GPA and/or ACT. Many schools even automatically award scholarships based on the student achieving certain thresholds. These scholarships can be worth tens of thousands of dollars a year, are available to many students and you can readily count on receiving them if you meet the criteria.

Large state schools

These are big public schools with enrollments in excess of 20,000 students. This group has a diverse approach to awarding scholarships. As I live in Minnesota, I will use regional schools as my examples. This category would include the University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin – Madison, University of Iowa and Iowa State from neighboring states. Minnesota and Wisconsin don’t really play in the merit aid space except for the one off “George Anderson” scholarships mentioned above. On the other hand, Iowa State is generous with automatic merit aid awards ranging from 6 to 11 thousand per year. Thresholds based on GPA and ACT start as low 3.3 and/or a 24. The University of Iowa also has automatic merit aid but the threshold is much higher, requiring close to a 30 ACT and a higher GPA.

Smaller state schools

Schools in this group include the University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University, St. Cloud State, University of Minnesota – Duluth and Mankato, University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, Whitewater, Stout to name a few. Many of these schools do offer automatic scholarships in addition. The general range for qualifying for these scholarships is a 3.5 GPA and 25 ACT. These schools have a lower cost of attendance than their larger school counterparts. As a result, the scholarships they offer are in lower amounts than the big schools. Here you might be looking at an award of maybe $2500 per year but the starting price for the school might be closer to $20,000.

Liberal Arts private schools

Schools in this category include the University of St. Thomas, Carleton, Gustavus Adolphus, St. Olaf, Lawrence University in Wisconsin amongst many others. These schools can also be a mixed bag when it comes to offering merit aid. Some are very stingy while others can be very generous. There are no published automatic thresholds for these private schools and they will tell you that they review each students application on its individual merits but at some of these schools an ACT score of 22 can be worth $20,000 per year and higher scores can be worth an additional $15,000.

Elite schools

This category goes beyond just Ivy League schools and includes well known schools such as Duke, Notre Dame and even certain state public schools like the University of Michigan, University of North Carolina, and University of Virginia. This is the category that results in the most confusion with families. These schools are very expensive and attract the best of the best students. Many families think that their brilliant student will get huge offers at these schools, but the truth is the exact opposite. These schools are in very high demand and every student is an academic rock star so they don’t have to offer much for scholarships. That is not to say these schools don’t make funds available for students. If you have a financial need these schools will be the most generous of any of the categories and some will meet 100% of your financial need with grants.

How has the test optional movement impacted this?

Prior to Covid there was a small subset of schools that had gone test optional. This means that the school doesn’t require the submission of an ACT test score to be a factor in either admissions or for scholarships. Covid resulted in mass cancellations of ACT tests across the country so many more colleges hopped on the test optional bandwagon for the 2021 admissions cycle.

If you have a school on your list that is test optional the ACT score should be treated as one of the assets in your tool kit. If you have a score that is below the university average, then it might be in your best interest to not report it and rely on your GPA instead. Test optional schools will still award scholarships solely based on your GPA. Here is an example of how this worked out this past year:

GPA: 3.7

ACT: did not report

School A: 24 ACT and 3.0 GPA was $12,000; 26 ACT and 3.5 GPA was $13,000; 28 ACT and 3.7 GPA was $14,000

School B: 3.5 GPA was $6,000; 24 ACT and 3.3 GPA was $8,000; 26 ACT and 3.5 GPA was $9,500; 28 ACT and 3.7 GPA was $11,000

At school A the offer was a $14,000 scholarship based on the GPA even though the ACT did not meet that requirement. School B offered $9,500 even though the GPA alone would have qualified for a higher amount.

Covid has thrown many unknowns into this process. Admissions for the fall of 2021 ushered in a new wave of test optional schools and scholarships based on GPA. It remains to be seen how this will work for the fall of 2022 admissions. Will schools stay with the test optional movement or go back to requiring an ACT score for scholarships?


Even if the test optional movement continues, it can be a good idea to take the test and see if it can be used as an additional asset. If the score can be used in your favor, then use it to your advantage. If the score isn’t an asset, then don’t use it and rely on hopefully a strong GPA. An ACT score can still be worth tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships. If you have a student that is close to a threshold for receiving merit aid or a larger amount of aid it can be a wise investment to pay for an ACT prep class like O’Toole Educational Services. A one time investment of less than $1000 may pay back over $10,000 per year.

If you want help navigating through college financing and how much it is going to cost you to send your student to the schools they are considering contact 7th Street Financial and sign up for our College Planning services where we work with you to find colleges that will be a financial fit based on your budget and what you can expect from aid based on your financial situation and your student’s profile.

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