Maximizing Merit Money

Question: What suggestions do you have for maximizing merit and grant aid?  We’ve been careful to focus on colleges where my daughter is at or above the 75th percentile.  She’s a rising senior with a 29 ACT, 3.7wGPA and strong sport and volunteer ECs.  The net price calculators make me think that 2 or 3 thousand dollar difference in merit/grant aid will make a big difference to us. As we plan for senior year, should we contact schools proactively to discuss our situation or wait until after acceptance or after awards or let the chips fall? My daughter’s school is very rigorous (top ACT scores in the state, strict curriculum, and USNews gold) but not known to the schools where she will apply.  Should we do anything to help colleges consider her high school?  Thanks for your thoughts.

 You’ve already figured out the most critical piece of the merit-aid puzzle (and it is a puzzle indeed … a Chinese puzzle, perhaps, perplexing at times to even the most seasoned college counselors).  By focusing your search on schools where your daughter’s grades and test scores put her at or above the 75th percentile, you will most likely land in merit-money territory. The vast majority of colleges, especially private ones, do offer some sort of non-need-based aid to lure their most sought-after candidates. And typically the colleges that offer only need-based assistance are the uber-selective places where your daughter’s acceptance (based on the GPA and ACT score you supplied) isn’t likely. (We’re taking about Ivies, Amherst, Williams, Middlebury, etc.)

Admission officials make a point of familiarizing themselves with all of the high schools on their turf. So, even if you believe that your daughter’s school isn’t known at the colleges where she plans to apply, there probably actually is a staff member whose duty roster includes learning about all the schools in a geographic region that are represented in the applicant pool. In addition, every high school transcript arrives in admission offices accompanied by a “School Profile” that supplies data such as median ACT and SAT scores, community demographics, the percent of graduates attending four-year institutions, AP or IB offerings, etc. So the admission committees at each of your daughter’s target colleges should have some sense of where she’s coming from.

As your daughter navigates the admissions maze, it can work in her favor to contact the regional rep at the colleges she’s considering. While admission staffers don’t have the time or inclination to become your daughter’s pen pal, it’s still wise for her to write each rep at least once or twice. In her initial note she can ask questions (if they are genuine ones not easily answered on the Web site or elsewhere), say thanks for an info session at her school, comment on a highlight of her campus visit, or simply express her interest in the college while offering very specific reasons why this is so. Once the admission rep writes back ( and it’s not set in stone that this will happen though it’s likely), your daughter’s reply can include a succinct “reminder” of the rigor at her high school. This should not be in the form of a whine or complaint (“My school is SOoooo hard and I wish my GPA was higher”) but should come with a positive spin (“While I know that the neuroscience major at Fantasy State will be demanding, the AP classes at my high school are extremely challenging, so I’m psyched for whatever college life throws my way!”). I wouldn’t recommend asking for merit money in these missives, but if the application requires one of those annoying “Why This College?” essays,  it’s okay to put “generous merit money” on the list of attractions, as long as it’s somewhere near the bottom of the pecking order.

If your daughter is strong enough in her sport to play on the college level, she should fill out the online recruiting forms that she’ll find on most athletics Web pages and then go the extra mile and write each coach directly. Her email should highlight both her athletic accomplishments and her GPA/ACT numbers. Coaches don’t want to waste time pursuing a prospect who has no prayer of acceptance.  Even at Division 3 schools, where there are no athletic scholarships, athletes may snag sweet merit awards that are officially labeled “academic” or “leadership” or “community service” grants, yet somehow seem to go to a lot of soccer goalies, breast-strokers, or tennis champs. So, as your daughter refines her college list, she might want to pay particular attention to the places where the coach seems to be showing real interest and not just offering lip service (a difference that can be sometimes tough to discern).

I don’t recommend contacting the admission or financial aid offices to discuss your merit-aid requirements UNLESS there are extenuating circumstances in your financial picture that you want to disclose. For instance, if your daughter will qualify for little or no need-based aid but your have expenses that the FAFSA or CSS Profile won’t reveal, then a meeting with a finaid official (in person or via telephone) might be appropriate. Such expenses are wide-ranging. They could include paying a nursing home tariff for a relative or setting aside savings for the long-term care of a special-needs sibling. Certainly an uninsured loss can take a big bite out of a budget, and there are countless other reasons for asking for extra help, which won’t show up on the normal documentation. So if this is true for you, then go ahead with the pro-active approach. Otherwise, choose your daughter’s target schools wisely and hope for the best.

Then, once she’s been admitted, it’s okay to appeal a merit grant if you feel it falls short of adequate, and you know that the college has more in the coffers. Merit aid can be one of the most confusing parts of a very confusing process. While some institutions like the University of Alabama (God bless ’em!) state clearly on their Web sites what out-of-state applicants can expect for merit dough, it’s far more common for Web sites (and college officials) to be vague. (“Our merit scholarships range from $2,000 to full-tuition and are awarded to prospective students for excellence in academics and leadership.”). So it can be impossible to tell if a college has already made their best offer or might honor your appeal.

As you continue your college search, be sure to check out College Confidential’s SuperMatch: http://www.collegeconfidential.com/college_search/  Your daughter can select her preferences from the menu on the left. Under the “My Scores” heading, she should check the box that says, “I’m interested in schools where I would be well above average, to increase my financial aid opportunities.”  This may put some places on her radar screen that she had not previously considered and where she may be a contender for merit money.

Finally, keep in mind that many colleges will use the unweighted GPA and not the weighted one when determining merit awards. While admission committees will duly note when a student has taken a heavy course load, the final merit-money tally may be tied to the unweighted GPA. Policies vary, and so this is a question that your daughter can include when she writes to admission counselors, if she doesn’t already have this information from the Web site. Not only will this allow her to hone in on colleges where her scholarship odds are best, but also it can help jump start the merit-money conversation with her regional rep.

Admission officials do know that the bottom-line price tag can be a key factor when a student makes a final college choice, but there is still a delicate balance between getting enough information ahead of time to make informed selections and irking the admission folks by implying that it’s mainly the money—and not their institution’s other alluring traits—that are the big draw for your daughter!

Best of luck to you as you tread that fine line and continue through the admissions quagmire.

(posted 6/21/2016)