How To Play The College Waiting Game to Maximize Merit

Young woman sitting in a chair in a waiting room looking board

How To Play The College Waiting Game to Maximize Merit

Published on January 5, 2024

Young woman sitting in a chair in a waiting room looking board

Once you’ve applied to colleges and started receiving acceptances, it’s hard to know what to do to maximize your chances of receiving the most scholarship and need-based aid possible. For many families, knowing this information is key to selecting a school, so you’re sort of at a standstill without it. 

Sabrina Malone, a parent of five, recently shared what her family is doing to help her fifth child navigate this period and increase their chances of receiving financial support in our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group.

We have a high school senior who wants to go to college, has applied to at least a dozen schools, heard back from a few, and early results show we won’t exactly have enough money to outright pay for any of this. Here’s what we’re doing as we play the waiting game to maximize our chances of success.

First, we steered our child to apply to colleges where their stats would be far higher than the norm there. (Safety schools.) We emphasized the importance of opening emails, setting up portals, and checking them weekly to track notifications. We’re also demonstrating interest at schools that track it and even at ones that claim they don’t (it can’t hurt.) We’re doing this in the hopes of being offered significant merit scholarships.

So far our child has received a few invitations to compete for full rides, a couple of full tuition scholarships, and some Presidential and Deans Scholarships (yay!). But the bottom line is that we can’t afford to cash flow more than $1000 a month out of our budget, and our college savings were used up by our oldest four kids. So even these great offers that leave just $15,000-$22,000 as a remaining net price are still somewhat beyond us. 

So what are we doing about this? 

  1. Nobody is enrolling anywhere yet. We aren’t sending in a deposit nor committing anywhere until May 1st — unless a top-choice college comes back with a revised offer that we can easily afford without debt.
  2. We are asking for higher merit scholarships by supplying interim grades and showing any new awards that weren’t in the application, whatever we have that might tip the scales for a bit more. We’re also visiting schools and asking to schedule an interview with whoever holds the purse strings regarding merit scholarship money.
  3. Our student is training and practicing interview skills with previous full-ride scholarship winners. Learning to interview well is worth real money, so you can best believe we will have this child learning to interview, practicing, and training with experts as if a fortune were at stake (because it is.) 

Plot twist:

  1. Our student’s current top choice, and probably the best fit, is a target school. (A target is a college where your GPA and test scores are not way above their norm and not every qualified applicant gets in.) Last week we rejoiced when our kiddo got in with an offer that included both a merit scholarship and a projection for some need aid too. The combination makes it almost affordable for us,  but not quite.
  2. To bridge the gap, we intend to play the waiting game. This is the affordability tactic where you don’t enroll until the eleventh hour. We have until May 1st. Housing is guaranteed for freshmen. We hope that as Decision Day approaches colleges that aren’t meeting their enrollment goal will be more willing to offer additional scholarships to their still-pending accepted students. Our fourth-born received an extra $5,500 renewable in merit scholarships added to his top choice college by using this tactic.

The best-case scenario is that by the end of April, we hope to have a choice between “free college” or “affordable college,” and since we prescreened all the colleges for affordability before even applying, our worst-case scenario would involve choosing the best we can afford among the “almost-affordable“ options. 

Other than doing these things, this is officially the time when students and families just have to be patient. 

Join this conversation and others with parents just like you in our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group.


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.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

How My Daughter Got $53,000 a Year in Merit and Financial Aid Plus More in Private Scholarships

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

How to Get Students Motivated to Apply for Scholarships




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