Paying for college continues to be a challenge for many families who are looking for ways to make the most of their education dollars.
Some students might not qualify for need-based aid, and others, even with need-based aid, might not be able to attend the school of their choice because of not being able to cover the cost of attendance.
When this is the case, turning to merit scholarships can be one way to get more funding for college.
Here’s what you need to know about merit scholarships.
What Is a Merit-Based Scholarship?
Merit scholarships are, in general, aimed at providing funding to high-achieving students.
A merit scholarship is awarded based entirely on a student’s merits, such as academics, test scores, extracurricular activities, community service and more, and it is not based on your family’s need for financial aid.
Here are some of the factors that can help you get merit aid:
As you might expect, a high GPA can go a long way toward helping you land merit scholarships as a student
Another consideration is your test scores. High standardized test scores on your SAT or ACT can help you get merit aid, especially when combined with your grades. Many schools award merit scholarships entirely based on test scores or a combination of test scores and GPA.
In addition to grades and test scores, your extracurricular activities can be considered. Involvement in sports, music, theater or some other program shows that you’re well-rounded and can excel in more than one area.
If you can show that you have leadership skills, perhaps by being the director of a student-produced play or captain of your basketball team, you can increase your chance of receiving merit aid. Additionally, organizations that build leadership skills and offer opportunities, like 4-H and Junior Civitans, can help you demonstrate involvement and leadership.
Volunteering in your community is another good way to qualify for merit scholarships. Being involved in local service organizations, volunteering at a food pantry or helping out at an elementary school can all help show that you possess community-minded characteristics.
Finally, if you can show excellence in a particular area, you might have a better chance of getting merit aid. For example, if you have won an art competition, are selected to perform in honor bands, or if you are the MVP of your athletic conference, you show that you consistently work hard to take your performance to the next level.
By being involved in your community, and working hard to do well, you can receive a merit scholarship, or receive a tuition discount that can help you pay for school. When combined with need-based financial aid, it can make a big difference.
What Are the Different Types of Merit Scholarships?
Different activities you participate in can help you qualify for tuition discounts and merit aid, but there are some types of scholarships that fall into specific categories. Here are a few things to think about.
The two main types of merit scholarships are those offered directly by schools, in the form of merit aid, and those offered by private, outside organizations in the form of private scholarships.
Merit Scholarships From Colleges, Also Known as Tuition Discounting or Merit Aid
One of the key issues associated with merit aid is the concept of tuition discounting.
Basically, this practice is designed to attract first-time students to the school. The sticker price might seem high to prospective students, so colleges offer merit-based aid and offer lower tuition to first-time students.
According to the 2018 NACUBO Tuition Discounting Study, 405 private, nonprofit colleges and universities report an institutional discount rate of more than 50% for first-time students.
Part of this discount rate comes from the award of merit aid.
It’s 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 was for the first year.
However, the NACUBO study still found that those schools still offered tuition discounts amounting to about 46.3% of the cost of tuition for all undergraduates.
When creating a college list, it’s important to note that about 26% of college aid — a good amount of which is based on merit — comes from the colleges and universities themselves.
This is in comparison to only about 7% of scholarship aid which comes from private outside sources (aka private scholarships).
That’s why it’s so important to research and review schools to see which ones offer merit aid, what is the average merit aid amount and how many students are awarded merit aid.
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 of test scores.
Carefully review the requirements for merit scholarships from schools, since some colleges have separate due dates for applications, while other schools automatically review all students to see which qualify for help.
Finally, make sure you understand the differences between requirements for in-state and out-of-state students, as well as different requirements for new freshmen vs. transfer students.
[Chasing Merit Scholarships? Here’s a checklist for students starting in junior year of high school.]
What Are National Merit Scholarships?
If you test well, you can receive money through the National Merit Scholarship Program, which awards scholarships based on PSAT test scores. Those with high scores on this test, which is administered during your junior year in high school, can receive some money toward college.
Students qualify by having a PSAT score that is equal to or above the minimum PSAT scores required by each state to qualify as a National Merit Semi-Finalist.
There are 3 kinds of National Merit Scholarships.
- The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) awards $2,500 one-time scholarships to approximately 7,600 finalists.
- Corporate sponsors provide another 1,000 or so awards for children of employees or students in their communities. These may or may not be renewable and they can range from $500 to $10,000.
- Colleges sponsor close to an additional 4,000 or more scholarships. Like corporate awards, they may not be renewable and they can vary in size.
Unfortunately, The NMSC award hasn’t kept up with the cost of college.
Automatic Merit Scholarships
Even if you don’t get a scholarship based on your PSAT score, you might be awarded a merit scholarship based on your GPA or other academic achievements.
Some schools offer automatic merit scholarships based on test scores and grades, while other schools will ask students to submit a separate scholarship application.
For example, Utah State University offers an automatic four-year, full-tuition scholarship if you have a 3.8 GPA and score 1560 on your SAT. Other levels offer other levels of tuition discounts for different combinations of test scores and GPA.
Many colleges which award automatic merit scholarships share this information on their websites with grids and charts that show the required GPA and test score combination that is needed to receive the scholarship amount.
For example Utah State University has a very clear scholarship grid on their website – one for state residents and another one for non-state residents:
You will find that colleges vary a lot as far as the requirements for receiving automatic merit scholarships and the amounts that they offer.
There are also many other colleges that don’t use grids, but do still offer automatic merit scholarships.
This doesn’t necessary mean your student has to go through a formal competition. Many of these automatic merit scholarships just involve a review of all eligible students and selection of specific students for the scholarship as part of the general admissions process.
Competitive College Merit Scholarships
In addition to automatic merit scholarships, many colleges offer merit scholarships through a separate scholarship application process.
One example is The Parks Scholarship at North Caroline State University.
In addition to applying to North Carolina State University, students must also submit a separate application to be considered for the Parks Scholarship. Applications must be received by November 1st and include an additional essay, specific for the scholarship.
This is just an example of many competitive merit scholarships at individual colleges that require students to submit separate applications, additional essays and recommendations, and in some cases also include a separate interview process.
Be prepared to search for these details to make sure you don’t miss scholarships just because your student didn’t apply on time.
You can also apply for a scholarship programs offered through a specific school within a college or university.
One example is the Wells Scholars Program, which is available at Indiana University Bloomington. Check with individual schools to see if they have automatic programs or fellowship programs based on academics.
Performing Arts or Talent Scholarships
Some schools award merit aid based in part on your abilities in the arts. If you’re willing to take part in theater products and excel at drama, you might be able to get a scholarship. Some schools offer performance stipends for those willing to join the marching band, show choir or ballroom dance team.
Merit Scholarships for Existing College Students
In addition to scholarships for incoming students, you might also look at different schools that offer scholarships for ongoing students.
Some schools offer departmental scholarships for those in certain majors, and others offer ambassadorship scholarships for students who give campus tours or help with recruitment.
Find out what’s available at the schools you’re considering to see what might be available for first-time and continuing students.
Some Private Scholarships Are Also Called Merit Scholarships
Even if you don’t end up with merit scholarships from a college, or if that merit aid isn’t enough, you can apply for private scholarships from outside sources.
There are a number of organizations that offer scholarships. This type of help might come with smaller amounts, but every little bit helps when you’re paying for school.
If you’re working to strengthen your community, you might qualify for the AXA Achievement Scholarship. This merit scholarship awards students who work to improve their communities through volunteering or other projects.
Additionally, many local service organizations might offer scholarships. For example, local clubs associated with Rotary International offer scholarships to local students who show promise. Contact your local Rotary club to see what’s available, and how to qualify. Other local service organizations might also offer scholarships to local students.
Depending on your personal background and your accomplishments, you might be able to find programs and scholarships that recognize you for special skills. For example, the Women Techmakers Scholars Program focuses on women studying in technology fields.
It’s also possible to find scholarships for high-achievers in other traditionally-underrepresented groups, such as those of Hispanic background who have a STEM emphasis or African Americans who show promise in community service and other areas.
Consider what talents and traits your personal background has provided for you, and look for scholarships that recognize those characteristics.
Which Colleges Offer Merit Scholarships?
Whether a school offers merit aid is entirely up to that institution.
There are thousands of colleges and universities in the United States, and not all of them offer merit scholarships.
In fact, you’ll find that all Ivy League schools do not actually offer merit aid. Instead, they focus on offering need-based financial aid to students of limited means who can pass their rigorous admissions process.
Does Harvard Give Merit Scholarships?
No. According to Harvard’s website, this prestigious university only offers need-based financial aid. Other prestigious schools that don’t offer merit scholarships include:
- Columbia University
If you’re looking for merit scholarships, you might be better off with smaller private schools or at public universities.
How Do You Get Merit Scholarships?
When looking for merit scholarships, it helps to be strategic in how you apply.
Realize that merit aid is likely going to come from a variety of sources — not just the school. You might need to get more than one scholarship to cover your college funding needs.
Here are some tips for casting a wider net as you look for college merit scholarships.
Tips for getting college merit aid from the school
Understand what data to look for when researching colleges.
It’s essential to understand what the following pieces of data mean and use them when comparing schools to determine which school may be more generous with merit scholarships:
- Average percent of need met
- Percent of students receiving merit aid
- Average merit award
- Average net price
[Check out How to Use Data to Find Merit Scholarships]
You can quickly and easily get access to this type of data, and more, in our College Insights tool.
This tool also lets you quickly find colleges where your student is in the top 25th percentile of applicants and more likely to receive merit scholarships.
Find the College Insights tool here.
Check for honors programs.
Some universities have honors programs that are designed for high academic achievers. These schools might be more willing to offer merit scholarships — and might even provide you with access to special housing.
Review automatic scholarships at schools.
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 your high school GPA isn’t impressive, but you know you can work hard and earn a scholarship later.
Focus on non-academic merit scholarships
If you’re GPA is in the middle of the pack, you might need to set yourself apart with other qualifications, such as extracurricular activities, volunteering, leadership, sports or arts. Look for ways to demonstrate that your excellence in other areas makes up for a less-than-perfect GPA.
You’ll need to check the school’s financial aid page on the website or speak with an admissions counselor.
By doing some research about the schools on your list, you’ll be able to better identify your top choices and figure out where your best options for getting merit aid are.
Tips for Finding Private Scholarships Based on Merit
Use online scholarship searches
There are a number of websites that can help you identify merit scholarships, including FastWeb, Scholly and Scholarships.com. Use these websites to filter scholarships you might be qualified for. You might be surprised at how even small scholarships can add up if you get enough of them.
One of the best ways to find merit scholarships is to look at local businesses and community groups. Credit unions, banks, department stores and services clubs all offer scholarships to local students. You might even find grants through your state or local government levels aimed at helping students with merit attend school.
[Review Strategies for Getting Niche and Local Scholarships]
Something to Keep in Mind When Searching for Merit Scholarships
When searching for merit aid, realize that you’re probably not going to get it from top private schools, like those in the Ivy League or expensive near-Ivies.
The reality is that those schools have rigorous admissions processes and low acceptance rates, so just getting in is almost like merit. As a result, these schools focus on need-based aid.
You’ll need to get merit college scholarships from outside groups and maybe even supplement with student loans if you want to go to these schools and don’t qualify for need-based aid.
One of the best-kept secrets some schools have is that information about all of the scholarships they offer is NOT always widely advertised on their websites.
Doing research and asking the right questions is highly recommended.
What Is a Full-Ride vs. Full-Tuition Scholarship?
A full merit scholarship is one that will cover your tuition for four years of college. These scholarships can be difficult to get, but they can be very valuable. However, it’s important to note that a full-tuition scholarship is not the same thing as a full-ride scholarship.
What Is a Full-Tuition Scholarship?
A full-tuition scholarship, usually only covers tuition. You’ll only get help covering your tuition costs and might still be on the hook for housing and other costs associated with going to the school.
What Is a Full-Ride Scholarship?
A full-ride scholarship, on the other hand, also includes housing and fees in the scholarship amount.
This is especially helpful because the full cost of attendance at some schools can be quite high. Even getting a full merit scholarship might only cover tuition, leaving as much as half (or more) of the actual cost of attendance not covered.
Even if you get full-tuition scholarship or merit aid that covers tuition, it’s a good idea to keep applying for scholarships from different sources because you might need help paying for housing and other education-related costs.
[What’s the difference between full-ride and full-tuition scholarships?]
Which Colleges Offer the Best Merit Scholarships?
When looking for merit college scholarships, there are some schools that are more likely to offer aid than others, among public universities and private schools.
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 Deigo
- The University of Texas at Dallas
- Coastal Carolina University
- College of William and Mary
- University of Hawaii at Manoa
- University of Montevallo
Find out more about how much each school offers by reading our article on the top public universities offering merit scholarships.
Private schools with the largest merit aid
- Duke University
- Washington and Lee University
- Swarthmore College
- Hollins University
- Wesleyan University
- Beloit College
- Bard College
- Albion College
- Hartwick College
- Clarkson University
You can find out more about the top private schools that offer merit scholarships — including schools like Albion College that offer aid to 100% of their income freshmen.
Make the Most of Your Education
With the right approach to choosing schools and scholarships, it’s possible to get merit aid that can go a long way toward helping you afford the cost of college — even at one of the top public or private universities in the country.
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