Merit Scholarship Guide: How to Find Them and Get Them

Young woman in a graduation cap and gown holding a diploma in one hand and a fan of $100 bills in the other.

Merit Scholarship Guide: How to Find Them and Get Them

Published March 8, 2024

Young woman in a graduation cap and gown holding a diploma in one hand and a fan of $100 bills in the other.

Paying for college is a bigger challenge than ever. Even if students qualify for need-based aid, many of their families still can’t afford the college of their choice. Fortunately, merit scholarships can often make up the gap. This comprehensive guide explains what you need to know, including how to find and get merit scholarships.  

Table of Contents

What Is a Merit Scholarship?

A merit scholarship is tied to a student’s accomplishments, not financial need. While merit scholarships are primarily awarded for academic achievement, students can also get money for college based on athletic or artistic ability, personal background, intended major, community involvement, and more.

Colleges directly distribute most merit-based scholarships,  but it can also come from private sources, such as foundations, corporations, and community organizations.

If you’re looking for help paying for college for your high school student, merit scholarships are worth looking into. An estimated $22 billion in scholarships for merit is available in the U.S., and you don’t necessarily need to be a straight-A student to get this type of assistance.

Among public universities, about one in four students receives some form of merit-based aid, and more than 85% at private colleges.

Award amounts for merit scholarships can range from a few hundred dollars to full rides covering the full cost of college attendance.

Factors That Help You Get Merit-Based Scholarships

Given the variety of merit scholarships available, several factors can help you earn merit aid:

  • Academic excellence

Colleges and organizations primarily base merit scholarships on a student’s academic performance, including a high GPA and challenging coursework, such as multiple Honors, Advanced Placement (AP), or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes.

  • High test scores

High scores on standardized tests like the PSAT can help students get merit aid, especially when combined with strong grades. Many schools award merit scholarships entirely based on a combination of test scores and GPA.

  • Extracurricular activities

In addition to grades and test scores, deep involvement in extracurricular activities such as sports, music, theater, student council or other after-school activities shows that a student is well-rounded and can excel in more than one area. Leadership positions within these activities may be especially valuable when applying for scholarships based on merit.

  • Community involvement

Serving the community — whether through volunteering, fundraising, or launching a service organization — is another good way to qualify for merit scholarships. Rather than one-time acts of service, these scholarships reward a consistent history of leadership, responsibility, and community-mindedness.

  • Talent in athletics, music, or the arts

One of the better-known types of merit scholarships is an athletic scholarship, awarded to students with strong abilities in all types of sports, ranging from football and basketball to soccer and rugby. Sports teams can be an important revenue source for colleges and universities, and merit scholarships are often used to draw high-performing athletes to a school. Other merit scholarships are awarded for special talents in the performing, literary, or visual arts.

  • Interest in a particular field

Colleges also may award merit scholarships to students with the desire and aptitude to pursue a particular field, such as math, engineering, green technology, journalism, or chemistry. For example, the Webb Institute in New York, which offers a Dual Bachelor of Science Degree program in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, offers full-tuition scholarships for all admitted students.

  • Personal background

Several scholarships exist to support students from historically underrepresented groups in the pursuit of higher education. These may include minority scholarships from African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American backgrounds; students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds; or those who have had to overcome adversity. Some scholarships also exist to support women in fields historically occupied by men. For example, the Society of Women Engineers gives away more than $1.7 million in merit scholarships for women pursuing an accredited degree in engineering and related fields.

Remember that, in addition to finding promising students, admissions committees also try to build a well-rounded incoming freshman class. One year, they may need a particularly talented oboist to round out their orchestra, the next an all-star athlete to add to their baseball team. So while academic performance is of primary importance, if a student can fill a particular niche for the school, there may be aid available to help pay their way.

Types of Merit Scholarships

We can divide merit scholarships into two main categories: those offered directly by academic institutions and those offered by private, outside organizations in the form of private scholarships. Together, they account for the estimated $22 billion in merit-based aid available to promising college students.

Each scholarship will have its own selection criteria and application process. Colleges may give some scholarships automatically when a student meets their academic and test score requirements. Others may require the student to submit essays and letters of recommendation, attend a formal interview, or demonstrate their talent in a particular niche through an audition or portfolio review.

Many colleges and universities offer a combination of both automatic tuition discounts and scholarships with a more rigorous application process. In fact, about 26% of all financial aid comes from higher learning institutions themselves, while only about 7% comes from private sources. The rest comes from federal and state sources, such as Pell Grants, and is generally based on need.

Below are some of the most common categories of merit-based aid.

Merit Scholarships From Colleges, Also Known as Tuition Discounting or Merit Aid

About 26% of college aid — a good amount of which is based on merit — comes from the colleges and universities themselves, often in the form of a tuition discount. This compares to 7% of financial aid offered through private sources.

According to the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), private nonprofit colleges and universities offer an average tuition discount of 56.2% for first-year students and 50.9% for all undergraduates combined. Discounted tuition rates for first-year students at public universities averaged about 20% when last studied in 2018, but showed an upward trend, so they may be higher now.

When creating a college list, it’s important to weigh the tuition discount amount against the overall cost of attendance and the likelihood of getting an award based on eligibility requirements and selectivity.

It’s also important to pay attention to the terms of these offers. In many cases, the tuition discount isn’t as high for subsequent years as it is for the first year.

Here are a few key data points to consider when evaluating a school’s financial aid offering:

  • Percentage of students receiving merit aid
  • Average merit award amount
  • Average cost of attendance
  • Average percentage of need met

If you want to learn which colleges may offer your student merit scholarships, or which colleges you’ll be able to afford, try our R2C Insights tool for free. You can also check each school’s Common Data Set for details on how much merit aid is awarded.

What Are National Merit Scholarships?

National Merit Scholarships are awarded to incoming college freshmen earning top PSAT scores in their junior year of high school. To be considered, students must attend a U.S. high school and meet the PSAT score requirements set for their state.

Each year, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) chooses about 16,000 semi-finalists from a starting pool of 50,000 top scoring 11th graders. Semi-finalists can then apply for one of approximately 7,500 scholarships awarded by the NMSC as well as sponsoring colleges and business corporations. Awards are worth anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000.

In addition to PSAT scores, the National Merit Scholarship program considers a student’s overall academic performance, recommendations from school administrators, and official SAT/ACT scores.

Types of National Merit Scholarships

There are three kinds of National Merit Scholarships, comprising about 7,500 individual awards:

  • The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) awards $2,500 one-time scholarships to about 2,500 finalists.
  • Corporate sponsors provide an additional 1,000 or so awards, usually for children of employees or students in their communities. These can range from $500 to $10,000 and may or may not be renewable during subsequent years of college.
  • Colleges sponsor another 4,000 scholarships for students who attend their institution. Like corporate awards, they can vary in size and may be renewable.

Another 800 or so Special Scholarships are awarded to semi-finalists who do not advance to the finalist round but meet the academic eligibility criteria set by sponsoring corporations.

Automatic Merit Scholarships

Some schools offer automatic merit scholarships based on test scores and grades. Colleges vary widely in their requirements for receiving automatic merit scholarships and the amounts they offer. Some colleges award merit to incoming freshmen in the top 25th percentile for grades and test scores, while others have stricter standards.

Many colleges share merit scholarship eligibility requirements on their websites, and may even have grids and charts that show the required GPA and test score combination that is needed to receive a certain scholarship amount.

For example, Utah State University offers an automatic four-year, full-tuition scholarship if a student has a 3.8 GPA and scores 1560 or above on the SAT. They also offer lesser tuition discounts of 20–90% for different combinations of test scores and GPA, with the standards being slightly higher for out-of-state attendees.

Competitive College Merit Scholarships

In addition to automatic merit scholarships, many colleges and college departments offer competitive scholarships that require a separate application.

Competitive scholarships tend to have a more nuanced selection process compared to automatic scholarships — and that process can benefit students whose grades and test scores don’t necessarily reflect their full academic potential.

Along with the application, competitive scholarship applications may require supplemental materials, like letters of recommendation, essays that speak to the student’s background and interest in pursuing higher education, or a body of work that demonstrates their interest in a particular area of study.

Competitive merit awards may go to students who are accepted to specific majors, come from underrepresented or minority backgrounds, demonstrate extraordinary leadership or community-mindedness, have exceptional talent in athletics or the arts, or participate in certain extra-curricular activities that contribute to a well-rounded student population.

Performing Arts or Talent Scholarships

While often pursued as a passion, a student’s talent and commitment within a particular area of the arts might just help them pay for college. Arts scholarships range from visual arts like painting and photography to performance arts like dance, music, and drama.

Some schools offer performance stipends to join the marching band, show choir, or ballroom dance team. If students can fill a particular niche for a school, they may be able to earn a substantial amount of money to help pay for college.

Merit-Based Scholarships for Existing College Students

Many merit scholarships are renewable, meaning students qualify for the aid throughout their attendance at college — as long as they remain in good academic standing. However, some colleges offer merit aid even to students who maintain a certain GPA or another measure of academic excellence while in attendance, even if they didn’t qualify as incoming freshmen.

Other types of scholarships available to continuing college students include:

  • Memorial and alumni scholarships, which may be open to students at any stage of their undergraduate education
  • Ambassador scholarships for students who participate in freshman welcome or mentoring programs
  • Departmental scholarships available to upperclassmen who have excelled in their majors and/or intend to pursue graduate-level coursework in their field of study

Families may also be able to find smaller pools of scholarship money through individual student organizations and clubs.

Some Private Scholarships Are Also Called Merit Scholarships

Private scholarships can be a good alternative or supplement to institutional merit scholarships — especially for students who don’t test particularly well or have extenuating circumstances that have impacted their GPA. One of the great things about these types of scholarships is the variety.

Many private scholarships are special interest scholarships that award students for extraordinary leadership and community service, dedication to a unique interest or hobby, or out-of-the-box accomplishments such as launching a business or attaining a patent.

Other privately sponsored merit scholarships may support minority students or those who have had to overcome extraordinary obstacles to pursue an education. Still others incentivize students to pursue challenging majors such as engineering, math, or physics.

Another benefit of private scholarships is that they’re not attached to a particular institution, so students can use them wherever they choose to study.

Each scholarship has its own application deadline and eligibility requirements, which may include supplemental materials such as essays and letters of recommendation that aren’t always considered for automatic scholarships.

Private Scholarships Based on Community Involvement

One of the primary goals of higher education is to shape students into well-rounded, conscientious, and altruistic leaders.

Therefore, some private scholarships are awarded to students who demonstrate extraordinary leadership potential and community-mindedness through acts of service, fundraising, or even launching a nonprofit.

One example is the AXA Achievement Scholarship, which awards students who work to improve their communities through volunteering or other projects.

Private Scholarships Based on Personal Background

A number of scholarships exist to support higher education for students from historically underrepresented and minority backgrounds, or those who have had to overcome significant obstacles. Depending on a student’s personal background and history, they might be able to find programs and scholarships that recognize them for their unique achievements.

Notable examples include the following scholarships:

  • The Google Lime Scholarship, which offers students with disabilities awards of $10,000 to study computer science, computer engineering, or a closely related field at an accredited 4-year university.
  • The Ron Brown Scholarship, which offers 50, 4-year scholarships valued at $10,000 per year to academically gifted and community-minded African American students entering college.
  • The Hispanic Scholarship Fund, which offers 10,000 scholarships of $500-$5,000 to academically outstanding students of Hispanic Heritage
  • The Gates Scholarship, which funds the full cost of attendance (minus expected family contribution and aid already received) for outstanding students of African-American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian & Pacific Islander American, and/or Hispanic-American descent.
  • The Families of Freedom Scholarship, which provides merit and need-based aid to children and dependents of those lost or severely affected by the 9/11 attack and rescue mission.

Which Colleges Offer Merit Scholarships?

Hundreds of colleges offer non-need-based aid to undergraduate students. However, if you’re looking for merit scholarships, you might be better off with smaller private schools or public universities and state schools.

While the most selective schools, such as the Ivies, offer generous need-based scholarships to incoming students who might otherwise not be able to afford the cost of attendance, they are less likely to offer merit-based aid.

Top Colleges for 2024-25 Freshman Merit Aid

This crowdsourced data shows which colleges have offered the most merit aid to members of Road2College so far for the 2024-25 academic year. Much of this aid is repeatable in subsequent years, though we show only the freshman year totals. These 60 schools represent almost half of the merit aid offered to our members.
CollegeCollege Total
to Our Members
# of Offers to
Our Members
Avg Offer
Susquehanna University$1,243,00032$38,844
Loyola University Chicago$1,136,49945$25,256
University of Alabama$1,036,66254$19,197
University of Vermont$1,004,50057$17,623
Fordham University$990,67048$20,639
Quinnipiac University$971,75039$24,917
Seton Hall University$907,00044$20,614
University of Scranton$891,03435$25,458
Fairfield University$861,85040$21,546
University of Arizona$855,50039$21,936
Wheaton College$844,40022$38,382
University of Hartford$829,0003027,633
Hofstra University$771,00024$32,125
Loyola University Maryland$769,50023$33,457
Drexel University$768,10037$20,759
Miami University Oxford$767,50051$15,049
Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute$689,15023$29,963
Duquesne University$683,50630$22,784
Marquette University$620,50024$25,854
Worcester Polytechnic University$605,75027$22,435
Saint Joseph’s University$605,50025$24,220
DePaul University$584,00026$22,462
Michigan State University$576,00044$13,091
University of Denver$546,00018$30,333
University of South Carolina-Columbia$536,94649$10,958
Ithaca College$534,00024$22,250
Case Western Reserve University$529,00020$26,450
Xavier University$526,00022$23,909
University of Dayton$517,00023$22,478
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology $503,00018$27,944
Clark University$495,50019$26,079
Wentworth Institute of Technology $474,00021$22,571
Gettysburg College$452,8509$50,317
Western New England University$434,41213$33,416
Saint Louis University$426,00013$32,769
Widener University$408,00012$34,000
Trinity University$393,00013$30,231
Merrimack College$389,90014$27,850
Ursinus College$383,00012$31,917
University of New Haven$371,00015$24,733
Muhlenberg College$367,00013$28,231
Marist College$355,00026$13,654
Knox College$352,0008$44,000
Furman University$349,00011$31,727
St. John’s University-New York$343,50013$26,423
Siena College$343,50015$22,900
Juniata College$343,0009$38,111
Stonehill College$338,00010$33,800
Tulane University$332,00022$15,091
Butler University$327,00014$23,357
Arcadia University$324,00013$24,923
College of Wooster$323,00010$32,300
University of Maine$322,01923$14,001
University of Rhode Island$321,00031$10,355
Willamette University$313,00010$31,300
Catholic University of America$312,50010$31,250
University of Tulsa$306,5388$38,317
Goucher College$306,0008$38,250
Indiana University-Bloomington$301,00042$7,167
Santa Clara University$294,40019$15,495

Which Colleges Offer the Best Merit Scholarships?

Multiple colleges offer full-tuition and even full-ride scholarships to promising students, but whether an aid package is best for a student may depend on what they want out of college and what they plan to do with their degree.

For example, a student may get a great merit aid package covering tuition to a large public university, but it may not have the best program for their intended major — something to consider if they intend to go on to grad school or pursue a career in a competitive field.

On the other hand, a student may get a lesser financial aid offering from a smaller private school that has one of the top-ranking programs in the world for their intended major, potentially setting them up for greater success in their future career.

Other factors to consider are whether a student will thrive at a larger university with a lower faculty-to-student ratio or a smaller college where they may have more opportunities to stand out and participate in research or other meaningful educational experiences.

The good news is that there are plenty of public and private schools that offer merit scholarships — including lesser-known schools like the Webb Institute and Albion College that offer aid to 100% of incoming freshmen.

R2C Insights (CI) can help you discover schools that are generous with merit scholarships and fit the criteria most important to your student.

Public Schools With the Most Merit Aid

  • The University of Alabama
  • University of Vermont
  • Tennessee State University
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology
  • University of California – San Diego
  • The University of Texas at Dallas
  • Coastal Carolina University
  • College of William and Mary
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • University of Montevallo

Private Schools With the Most Merit Aid

  • Duke University
  • Washington and Lee University
  • Swarthmore College
  • Hollins University
  • Wesleyan University
  • Beloit College
  • Bard College
  • Albion College
  • Hartwick College
  • Clarkson University

Which Colleges Don’t Offer Merit Scholarships?

Colleges that don’t offer merit scholarships include the eight Ivy League universities — Brown Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale — and more selective near-Ivies like Barnard, Georgetown, MIT, Stanford, and Wellesley.

The reality is that those schools have extremely rigorous admissions processes and low acceptance rates, so it usually takes an outstanding level of achievement just to get in. As a result, student aid is awarded primarily on the basis of need.

If students want to go to these schools and don’t qualify for need-based aid, they’ll need to get merit college scholarships from outside groups and maybe even supplement with student loans.

How to Get Merit Scholarships

Some colleges automatically award merit scholarships in the form of a tuition discount. Students need to apply for others  — and possibly attend an interview and submit additional materials, such as essays, letters of recommendation, and a body of work related to their intended major.

If students are interested in an arts or athletic scholarship, they may also need to attend an audition or try out (possibly multiple rounds).

Scholarships offered through private sources or a specific school or department within a college may have additional application requirements.

Tips for Getting College Merit Aid

  • Look for schools where your student is in the top 25% for GPA and test scores. Admissions standards vary widely across academic institutions. One of the best ways to get merit scholarships from colleges is to look for schools where your student is in the top 25th percentile for GPA and test scores among previously admitted classes. Many schools post the eligibility requirements for merit scholarships on the financial aid page of their website. However, not all schools make this information readily available, so you may also want to reach out directly to the school’s admissions or financial aid office.
  • Check for honors programs or department-specific scholarships. 

Some universities have honors programs that are designed for high academic achievers. In addition to helping you pay for college, these programs might even provide your student with access to special housing.

  • Review tuition discounting and automatic scholarships at schools. 

Some schools offer students tuition discounts and scholarships for having a certain GPA each year, no matter their previous performance. These schools can be good choices if a student’s high school GPA isn’t impressive, but they know they can work hard and earn a scholarship later.

  • Look for non-academic merit scholarships. 

Consider ways a student might demonstrate their excellence outside of academics to compensate for a less-than-perfect GPA. For example, some students set themselves apart through participation in interesting extracurricular activities, community service, school leadership, athletics, and the arts.

  • Pay attention to eligibility requirements and deadlines. 

Carefully review the requirements for each school, since some colleges have separate due dates for applications, while other schools automatically review all students to see which qualify for help. There may also be different requirements for in-state and out-of-state students, as well as new freshmen vs. transfer students.

  • Look for private scholarships to supplement institutional aid.

Realize that merit aid is likely going to come from a variety of sources — not just the school your student attends. They might need to get more than one scholarship to cover their college funding needs. Fortunately, private scholarships are stackable — meaning you can qualify regardless of other sources of aid.

RELATED: Check out 23 tips for winning more college scholarships

Tips for Finding Private Scholarships Based on Merit

  • Start with the school counselor. 

There are a number of websites, such as scholarships.com and niche.com, that can theoretically help you find merit scholarships, but sifting through the results can be overwhelming. A student counselor can advise on how to set filters to find the most relevant results. They may also be aware of local or niche scholarships available to students in your area or intended field of study.

  • Look locally. 

One of the best ways to find merit scholarships is to look at local businesses and community groups. Credit unions, banks, department stores and service clubs all offer scholarships to local students. You might even find grants through your state or local government aimed at helping promising students pursue higher education.

  • Search by niche. 

When looking for scholarships, try using specific search terms, (ex. Learning disability scholarships). For even narrower results, try combining your niche with your location (ex. Learning disability scholarships Oklahoma). You may find a variety of state and privately funded scholarships that would otherwise be buried in a larger scholarship database. One such example is the Dream Institute Higher Education Assistance Program, which is open to Oklahoma residents that have a learning disability.

  • Tap your online network. 

If your student is interested in pursuing a certain major or has been shaped in particular ways by their background, try reaching out to like-minded people in your personal network — including friends, colleagues, and even LinkedIn connections — for guidance. Facebook and Reddit forums on How to Find Merit Scholarships can also be a great way to learn about various scholarship opportunities from students and families who are on the other side of the search.

What Is a Full-Ride vs. Full-Tuition Scholarship?

It’s important to note that a full-tuition scholarship is not the same thing as a full-ride scholarship. While a full-tuition scholarship covers only the tuition paid to the college or university, a full-ride scholarship covers additional education-related expenses, such as books and living costs.

What Is a Full-Tuition Scholarship?

A full-tuition scholarship is one that covers tuition for four years of college. However, even with a full-tuition scholarship, you may still be on the hook for a huge portion of the total cost of college attendance.

Additional education-related expenses include books, classroom materials and lab fees, transportation, and room and board — which in an area with a high cost of living can be prohibitively expensive.

Therefore, even with tuition covered, it’s a good idea to keep applying for scholarships from different sources because you might need help to pay for housing and other education-related costs.

What Is a Full-Ride Scholarship?

As opposed to a full-tuition scholarship that covers only tuition-related expenses, a full-ride scholarship covers the complete costs of college attendance — including tuition and enrollment fees, books and classroom materials, housing, meals, and possibly even transportation.

While these scholarships can be difficult to get, they’re also incredibly valuable in that they remove the financial burden completely and allow a student to focus solely on their studies.

How to Use R2C Insights to Sort Colleges by Merit Scholarships

R2C Insights helps families find schools offering the most merit scholarships. The tool also lets you quickly find colleges where your student is in the top 25th percentile of applicants and more likely to receive scholarships for merit.

With R2C Insights, you can also:

  • Search for colleges in your price range
  • Conduct advanced searches by admit rates, scholarship type, deadlines, and more
  • Get personalized recommendations based on your search criteria

You can easily filter the information that’s most important to you and your student as you work together to build the perfect college list and find merit aid. Create a free account to get started.

R2C Insights Road2College Ultimate tool to find merit scholarships and compare colleges
Try R2C Insights for FREE

Merit Scholarship FAQ

  • What is a good GPA for a merit scholarship?

GPA requirements vary by college and scholarship, but an unweighted GPA of 3.5 or above is generally considered good enough to qualify for merit. That said, a  3.5 GPA doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a scholarship and less selective schools may have lower GPA requirements. Selection committees might also consider factors like test scores, extra-curriculars, and letters of recommendation.

  • What does it mean to get a merit-based scholarship?

A merit-based scholarship is awarded based on a student’s academic, athletic, artistic, or personal achievements, rather than demonstrated financial need. Merit scholarships may be given out automatically to students who meet a school’s GPA and test score criteria or awarded through a formal application process.

  • What is the highest merit scholarship?

The highest form of merit scholarship is a full-ride covering 4 years of college tuition, as well as other education-related expenses like housing, books, lab fees, and transportation. One such example is the highly competitive Gates Scholarship, which covers the complete cost of college attendance for outstanding minority students.

  • What is an example of a merit-based scholarship?

One of the better-known merit scholarships is the National Merit Scholarship, which is awarded to academically promising high school students who earn top scores on the PSAT. Merit scholarships also include academic, athletic, arts, and special interest scholarships funded by colleges or private sources.

  • How rare are merit scholarships?

Approximately 25% of public university students and 87% of private school students receive some form of merit aid — either in the form of an automatic tuition discount or competitive scholarship. The bulk of this aid comes directly from colleges and universities, but can also be awarded through state and private scholarship funds.

  • Are merit scholarships worth it?

Merit-based aid can range from a few hundred dollars to a complete full-ride, covering tuition, fees, books, and housing. However, most scholarships fall somewhere in the middle. Before putting in the work to apply, you’ll need to decide whether the effort is worth the potential payoff.

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Other Articles You Might Like:

10 Reasons to Consider Smaller Schools with High Acceptance Rates

The Price You Pay for College: Why It’s So Difficult to Predict Merit Scholarships

Chasing Merit Scholarships and Surviving the Road to College

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