Chasing Merit Scholarships and Surviving the Road to College

runner with blue shoes

Chasing Merit Scholarships and Surviving the Road to College

Published January 30, 2022 | Last Updated April 11th, 2024 at 11:25 am

runner with blue shoes

Have you ever wondered about how other families go about chasing merit while navigating the (very long) road to college? Once you read the story below from a parent in our Paying for College 101 group, you will have a good idea of how they do it and how sometimes bumpy that journey can be.

This story has been published with the writer’s permission and edited for clarity and length.

I’ve been a long time lurker in the Paying For College 101 group, looking for feedback–and a sanity check–from fellow merit chasers. After gleaning tons of info from group members, we’re taking the approach of casting a wide net and aiming where my daughter’s stats will be at the top, plus looking for evidence of generous merit (like auto merit charts, full ride/full tuition opportunities, anecdotes from here, or crowdsourced merit numbers on Road2College’s R2C Insights tool. But now that we’re in the thick of finalizing The List, I’m starting to second guess everything and might be going crazy. 

My Daughter’s High School Resume

DD (Darling Daughter) wants to major in chemistry or biochemistry (premed, but even if that changes, I picture grad school in her future) and has:

  • 4.0 unweighted GPA/4.537 weighted GPA
  • 8 advanced placements (AP) so far
  • 1500 on SATs
  • Ranked 6 out of 499 in a public high school in Maryland
  • Not much in the way of extracurriculars
  • Has not cured cancer, but if knowing everything there is to know about “so-bad-they’re-good movies” and mockumentaries was an Olympic sport, she’d be a medal contender.

We will not qualify for need-based aid.

My Daughter’s Criteria

We’re trying to hit a COA (cost of attendance) of $20k or lower, but not ruling out other options in the $20ks. Over $30k will most likely be nixed, because we have a million children, and I maybe would like to retire someday.

Also desired are good research opportunities, the ability to work closely with professors, and helpful premed advising. She would prefer a smaller school, far from home, somewhere that gets cold, and campus buildings that look like Hogwarts – but none of these are important enough to outweigh other factors…except possibly getting her out of the house.

Building a College List: Part One

It’s 20 schools, and if it seems like a weird mix of small liberal arts colleges (SLACs), big state schools, and random non-flagship state schools, that’s because it is. These schools either have great merit and COA in range, or they offer something interesting related to premed/chemistry/academic stuff that appeals to her.

My questions and where my head keeps going around in circles…

Is this list total overkill? We know from auto merit charts that University of Alabama, Arizona State University, Truman State University, and West Virginia University are going to look pretty good cost-wise (around $18-20k). And I know most people are good with smaller lists, but I also often see people advising the wide-net approach because there are always some merit aid surprises. It doesn’t seem unusual for merit chasers to try for this many schools. Still, should she just knock off some of the ones that seem more likely to come in over $30k? Or shoot her shot and wait and see?

Are there any here you would take off the list? Is there any school you would add?

Regarding bigger vs. smaller schools: Can kids find more diversity in a bigger school? For example, can a kid who’s all combat boots and Dungeons and Dragons (DND) and anime really find her people in a place where Bama Rush TikTok is a thing?

Will the bigger schools have more resources and support for things like premed advising and research opportunities, or is there going to be more competition for those kinds of things?

Or is smaller better because of the personalized attention and less competition for opportunities, even if it’s not a well-known SLAC, and a lot of the students are from the college’s local area?

My Daughter’s Initial College List

Here is what we have so far:

  • Albion College
  • Coe College
  • Creighton University
  • Drake University
  • Kalamazoo College
  • Monmouth College
  • Rhodes College
  • St Bonaventure University
  • Temple University
  • Texas Tech University
  • Truman State University
  • University of Alabama
  • University of Arizona
  • University of Mary Washington
  • University of Maryland
  • University of Maryland, Baltimore County
  • University of Minnesota Duluth
  • University of Missouri
  • Ursinus College
  • West Virginia University

Building a College List: Part Two

Albion College was bumped up to $43,000 in merit following a scheduled visit. (COA was also bumped up to $67,400, so the new net price became $24,400.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Merit $5,000 | COA $23,734 in state, living at home but with all the extraneous things they include in that calculation | Net $18,734

Ursinus College Merit $40,000 | COA $75,962 | Net $27,978

(As expected, the few schools that have sent back financial aid have unsurprisingly come back with just the $5,500 unsubsidized federal loan.)

Also awaiting a couple more schools and a few competitive scholarship processes to play out.

Also realizing I should probably go back and recalculate cost of attendance in a way that looks more realistic, based on things like travel expenses, and considering the likelihood of living off-campus for some years, schools that fix tuition for all four years, etc.

Chasing Merit and Building a College List: Part Three

My daughter has been offered over ONE MILLION DOLLARS in total merit scholarships to date. AND, here’s why that number is bogus and how you should never pay attention to people who calculate merit aid this way. It’s not that it’s inaccurate – it’s that it’s 100% misleading.

What matters most is the NET COST.  That is, the amount that you will pay at the end of the day for a student to attend. The merit amount is NOT the most important number.

Here are a few things I learned throughout this process:

  • Just because a school gives huge dollars in merit aid does not make it the most affordable. Eyes wide open when learning about schools that give “great merit.” Many schools have inflated sticker prices to begin with, so you gotta do the math yourself between the total cost of attendance minus aid. Only then is it clear: Highest merit amount does not equal lowest price. (See below for examples from my kid’s case.)
  • This total figure combines merit offers from 11 schools, almost all of which were deliberately chosen because they provide generous merit aid. It will go even higher as more schools come in, because she’s applied to 16. This is that merit chasing life.
  • This total figure also adds up the annual merit award over four years. The merit aid in these cases technically is available for each of four years, so it’s not wrong. However, often there are factors that also make that misleading too, e.g., minimum GPA requirements that a kid might not realistically be able to achieve, the possibility it might take more than four years to graduate, and rising tuition/fees over the course of the four years.
  • The merit money offered at different schools obviously can’t be transferred between each other, so the total dollar figure of compiled merit offers really means nothing in the real world with real dollars. It’s basically Monopoly money. But it sure sounds impressive doesn’t it? You know what it is good for…. not-so-humblebragging on Facebook.

Every day I see people here go crazy over big merit money and other parents try to throw up warning signs about how it’s discount trickery and Kohl’s pricing. Don’t be deceived, fellow parents!

My Daughter’s Current College List

Now here’s the status of my daughter’s current list. You’ll see more plainly where the net costs matter way more than the merit aid figures. In particular, see: Truman State. One of the lower merit awards, but just look at that net cost. It’s a thing of beauty.

  • University of Alabama: Merit $28,000 | COA $51,398 | Net $23,398
  • Albion College: Merit $42,000 | COA $66,970 | Net $24,970
  • University of Arizona: Merit $35,000 | COA $55,650 | Net $20,650
  • Coe College: Merit $32,000 | COA $59,342 | Net $27,342
  • Creighton University: Merit $24,000 | COA $60,260 | Net $36,260
  • Drake University: Merit $26,000 | COA $59,030 | Net $33,030
  • University of Minnesota Duluth: Merit $6,000 | COA $26,194 | Net $20,194
  • Montana State University: Merit $10,000 | COA $44,882 | Net $34,882
  • St. Bonaventure University: Merit $25,000 | COA $53,865 | Net $28,865
  • Truman State University: Merit $16,000 | COA $31,807 | Net $15,807
  • West Virginia University: Merit:$16,000 | COA $43,978 | Net $27,978

Our Chasing Merit Aid Outcome

There isn’t really an outcome yet, because the author’s daughter will still have to make her final decision. Until then, here’s what she has to say:

Note 1: Since I know the hypervigilant will notice and ask: COA figures are based on the most recent published numbers on each school’s website, most of which are from ’21-22, and if schools separated out direct versus indirect costs, in most if not all cases the COA figures here include both. These are all also for out of state.

Note 2: We’re still waiting on some other schools, including in-state schools, where the lack of merit aid yet low net figures will further reinforce the point. Also some of these schools could potentially end up with even more merit money because of the possibility of competitive scholarships or special offers for things like campus visits.

Note 3: I’m inputting all of this info into the Compare Offers/R2C Insights tool – and I highly recommend checking it out for a better sense of the levels of merit aid that can be expected at a given school, especially for parents of juniors doing their initial research. It’s well worth the fee for a few months of searching. We compiled the college list based on extensive research there in the spring, plus religiously reading and searching posts in this group, and getting input from parents here.

Note 4: Everything I know about college admissions and merit chasing is because I’ve learned it here, so this is my attempt at contributing to the growing body of knowledge for other parents, and to pay it forward. I hope it’s helpful.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

👉 Looking for expert test prep help and more on the road to college? See our Preferred Partner List

Other Articles You Might Like:

Our Family’s Journey Applying to Small Liberal Arts Colleges

Our Full Tuition Scholarship Journey

10 Reasons to Consider Small Schools with High Acceptance Rates




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