Merit based scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic achievement, leadership skills, community service, artistic talent, acting/singing/dancing talent and other factors. They’re often offered by colleges and universities, but also by private organizations.
What Are Merit Scholarships?
A merit based scholarship is an award given to students who demonstrate outstanding academic or talent performance. These scholarships are usually made to high school seniors and are awarded as part of the admissions process. It’s important to consider which colleges offer merit scholarships when students are applying because colleges usually award these scholarships for all four years of college.
Are Merit Scholarships the Same as Private Scholarships?
Private scholarships are not awarded by a school or a government program. Private scholarships come from corporations, non-profits, and community organizations.
Most private scholarship awards are quite small. Competition to win a private scholarship is high. As a result, about seven percent of undergrad students receive private scholarships, and the average value is under $2,000.
Given that in-state tuition is around $25,000 a year and a private school is close to twice as much, is it really worth the time and effort to search for merit-based private scholarships?
There are some “high-dollar scholarships,” but they tend to have one winner out of thousands of applicants. National Merit Scholarships are only $2,500 – $7,000 per year, and they are among the largest awards available.
The bottom line with private scholarships is that your best bet is to apply for locally available awards. Enjoy what you can get, but don’t expect to make a big dent in the cost of school.
How Do I Apply for a Merit Scholarship?
How a student applies for a merit scholarship depends on each college’s process. Some colleges offer automatic merit scholarships. This means the college reviews all applications they receive to determine if a student is eligible for a merit scholarship. A student does not need to do additional applications or essays, other than submitting their application with their personal statement and supplements, if required.
Colleges offering automatic merit scholarships usually share a grid or chart on their websites displaying the criteria needed to win the scholarship. The merit scholarship requirements tend to be based either on GPA and/or combined with a test score (ACT or SAT).
Another type of merit scholarships colleges offer are competitive merit scholarships. For these scholarships, students may be asked to write additional essays, and potentially submit a separate application to be considered for the school’s merit scholarship.
It’s important to keep track of deadlines for competitive merit scholarships. These deadlines may be different than the deadline for the regular application. The merit scholarship deadline may be before the regular deadline or after, so it’s important to ask the school and keep track of these dates.
The final type of merit scholarship is based on talent, such as art, music, theater, singing, dance, as examples. Applications for talent based merit scholarships usually involve submitting a portfolio or scheduling an appointment for an audition. Deadlines are also important, as there may be deadlines by which portfolios need to be submitted or auditions scheduled.
What Should I Look for When Applying for a Merit Scholarship?
Merit scholarships are offered by colleges as a way to attract students with higher academic profiles than the average student at their school. Most merit scholarships are offered to students with grades and/or test scores that are at or above the college’s 75th percentile.
To target colleges which are most likely to offer student’s merit scholarships, families should research schools where their student’s academic profile is in the top quartile of a school’s GPA and/or test score range. In addition, families need to also research whether or not a school offers merit scholarships. More selective colleges do not offer merit scholarships because the demand to apply and attend is very strong. Elite or selective colleges do not need to offer merit (also known as a tuition discount) to attract students to apply and attend.
How Much Money Will I Receive?
Merit scholarships can range from $5000 to full tuition and full rides. Public state schools usually do not have big budgets to offer large merit scholarships. Though an exception to this is the University of Alabama, which has aggressively used merit scholarships to attract out of state high achieving students.
University of Alabama’s merit scholarship levels may change year to year, but for the 2023 -2024 academic year, their top merit scholarship awards $28,000 for each year of college. A student needs an ACT of 32 – 36 or Sat of 1420 – 1600 and a GPA of 3.5 or more to automatically receive the Presidential Scholarship.
Private colleges or universities tend to offer larger merit scholarships as compared to public schools. Some private universities share test score and GPA grids on their websites to show scholarship levels and dollar awards.
If a college does not share a grid, they likely have developed an algorithm to determine how much merit scholarship money to offer a student as an incentive to accept the college’s offer and enroll.
What Happens After I’ve Received My Scholarship?
After receiving a scholarship, you will by notified by email informing you of the award. You should also find a letter in your mailbox confirming the award. If you do not receive either of these communications, please contact the school directly.
It’s important to understand any requirements that come with the merit scholarship. Most colleges require a student to meet a pre-determined GPA requirement to continue to receive the merit scholarship each year.
Before accepting, a student should carefully consider if they can meet the GPA requirement. A worse case scenario would be if a student fails to meet the GPA requirement, loses their merit scholarship, and the family can no longer afford the school.
Merit scholarships are an important source of funding that helps many families lower their cost of college. Since student’s can only be offered merit scholarships from schools they apply to, it’s essential that families research college’s merit scholarship policies before students apply.
Creating a college list with school’s where a student’s academic profile is above average and towards the top of a school’s range is key to improving the chances that a student will be awarded merit scholarships.
Look for a Mix of College Funding
With the cost of school increasing, and the number of college-bound students growing as well, there will continue to be more competition for the same funding.
Instead of just counting on good grades to give your student a full ride, expect to pull together money to pay for college from a variety of sources.
If you want to minimize college debt, look for ways to save for school as early as possible. Re-evaluate your household expenses to see if there are ways to cut costs and use that money to put towards college.
You can encourage – or require – your student to start with a low-cost community college before transferring to finish a four-year degree. Or, you can steer your child to schools that are the most likely to award need-based and merit aid.
Paying for college is a big challenge for many families. Take a look at our resources on cutting costs and our College Insights tool to help you find schools that will be more generous with their merit money.
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