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How many merit scholarships can I get?

February 15, 2019

If you are applying for merit scholarships, then you may be wondering if there is a limit on how many merit scholarships you can receive. The short answer is no, but there are some monetary and practical limitations that come into play. The number of merit scholarships that you receive is less important than the total dollar amount of those awards combined.

Rules of the Game

First of all, if you are awarded a private scholarship, whether it is need-based or merit-based, or some combination of both, then in accordance with federal law you must report it to your school. Schools are prohibited by federal law from “over-awarding” financial aid - that is, providing aid in excess of a student’s financial need - by more than $300. (If your Expected Family Contribution is zero, then the maximum dollar amount of financial aid that you can receive is equivalent to your school’s cost of attendance.)  You are not limited in the number of merit awards that you may obtain, but the total dollar amount of your combined financial aid package cannot exceed your financial need, as determined by the FAFSA, or your school’s cost of attendance, whichever is less.

From the outset, you should be clearly aware of your target schools’ policies for scholarship displacement, which colleges practice to avoid over-awarding financial aid. Scholarship displacement, very frustratingly for many students, prevents families from utilizing private merit awards to fund their Expected Family Contributions.

Practical Limitations

In terms of absolute dollar amounts, the vast majority of merit scholarships are provided by colleges directly. (Did you know?  Many private colleges are generously endowed with scholarship programs funded by wealthy alumni, and therefore can often award more merit-based aid than public universities.)  As a result, you may be able to obtain an attractive amount of merit-based aid just from a single merit scholarship awarded by your university. Even better, the application process for most college-sponsored merit scholarships requires little to no additional work on your part. Many schools will simply utilize your college application to determine your eligibility for merit-based financial aid, or else require submittal of only a very simple application form.

  • Pro tip: Keep in mind that the deadline to apply for college-sponsored merit aid may be earlier than the school’s regular admissions deadline. Know and honor thy deadlines!

Which brings us to the next point: there are only so many hours in the day. The application processes for private merit scholarships can be time-consuming and demanding. In addition to completing the application forms themselves, you may be required to write essays, submit letters of recommendation, or sit for interviews. There are no legal limitations on how many private merit scholarships you may receive, but as any high school junior or senior can confirm, there certainly are practical limitations on how much time you can spend on completing scholarship applications. The monetary awards offered by many private scholarship sponsors are somewhat meager; as a result, many otherwise-qualified candidates choose to forgo private merit awards in favor of receiving fewer, larger merit scholarships from colleges directly.

Rule of Thumb: Quality Over Quantity

Rather than applying for every available merit award under the sun - which would be impossible anyway! - students should instead prioritize applying to schools that offer merit-based aid to the most students. In considering which private merit scholarships for which to apply, students should focus on locally-sponsored scholarships, for which the competition is generally less fierce, and any other scholarships for which they are very well qualified. Especially for students who are offered very little need-based financial aid, it is important to focus on merit scholarships that offer the most substantial monetary awards in addition to those awards for which they have the best chance of winning.