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How do I qualify for a merit scholarship?

January 28, 2019

Did you know that some colleges award merit scholarships to more than 90 percent of students?  And that some schools allow your college application to double as your merit scholarship application?  These schools are in the minority, unfortunately, but they do exist. (Find out here which private colleges and which public schools award merit scholarships to the most students.)  You may think that you need to be Einstein incarnate to be chosen for a merit scholarship, but that is not necessarily the case. Here we explain how you  - yes, you - can qualify for one or more merit scholarships.

Step #1: Understand the meaning of merit.

Merit scholarships are awarded by a wide variety of religious groups, community groups, cultural organizations, national foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Coca Cola Scholars Foundation, and private individuals, such as wealthy alumni who endow scholarship programs via their alma maters. For many merit scholarships, “merit” refers simply to academic performance, such as your grade-point average, SAT or ACT scores, or class rank. For other scholarships, eligibility or “merit” may be determined in part by your region or state of residence, high school of attendance, community involvement, teacher recommendations, level of dedication to a specific field of study, gender, race, or ethnic background. Merit can mean many different things to many different scholarship sponsors. Merit-based aid is often (but not always) need-blind, meaning that candidates’ financial needs are not considered as part of the winner selection process.

Step #2: Determine the scholarships that interest you.

Now you realize that merit can have many different meanings. It’s time to brainstorm all the ways that you have merit. Make a list of relevant religious groups, community or cultural organizations, hobbies or academic fields that you seriously pursue, or other affiliations. Find out what specific scholarships are available, perhaps by utilizing one of the many online scholarship databases. Talk with your school guidance counselor and the leaders of any organizations in which you participate to find out if other lesser-known scholarships or grants are available. Find out what merit scholarships are available directly from the colleges to which you are applying. Determine which scholarships interest you the most, keeping in mind that locally-sponsored scholarships tend to be less competitive and therefore easier to obtain.

Step #3: Make sure you meet the minimum requirements.

Completing applications for private scholarships can be an arduous and lengthy process, so you don’t want to waste time on applying for scholarships that you have little or no chance of winning. For every scholarship that interests you, carefully review the minimum eligibility requirements to ensure that you qualify. Prioritize scholarships that are state- or locally-based, unless your academic qualifications are truly outstanding. Do what you can to improve your grades, test scores, and class rank, such that you may qualify for more scholarships.

Step #4: Submit your scholarship applications...on time!

Know the minimum requirements, and get those scholarship applications completed and submitted on time!  Get organized such that you know, preferably well in advance, the deadlines of the scholarships for which you are applying. Some schools that award merit scholarships only require submittal of a simple application, but that submittal deadline may be earlier than the regular admissions deadline. The application processes for private scholarships are usually much more demanding, and may require written essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, and possibly more. Know what is required to actually apply for each scholarship that interests you, and give yourself plenty of time to complete the applications.

Step #5: Hope for the best (and formulate a Plan B).

After you’ve given your best effort and submitted all of your scholarship applications, then sit back, relax, and pray. Just kidding!  Obviously you are not guaranteed to win any merit-based scholarships, so it is important to formulate a “Plan B” of sorts. Especially if you have yet to cover all of your college costs, you need a backup plan in the event that you do not receive any merit aid. Maybe that means attending a less expensive school or a school closer to home, or applying for additional need-based assistance - perhaps in the form of private student loans. When it comes to financing your college education, you have many different options available to you, especially if you plan ahead. Be proactive. Carpe diem!