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What is a merit scholarship?

January 28, 2019

If you are applying to college, then you may have heard something about merit scholarships. But what are they, exactly? Merit-based scholarships, unlike need-based financial aid, are awarded to students based on academic or other merit rather than demonstrated financial need. Happily for many students, your parents’ salaries have no bearing on your eligibility for merit-based aid.


Who Awards Merit Scholarships?

Merit scholarships are awarded by a variety of organizations and for different reasons. Colleges award merit scholarships as a method of attracting the most qualified students to attend their schools, while religious, cultural, and community groups award merit scholarships as a way of supporting talented young people within their organizations. Merit scholarships are not awarded by the federal government, but may be provided by state or local governments, in addition to state-funded schools. Public colleges and universities typically award fewer merit scholarships than private colleges, which are often supported by endowed gifts from wealthy alumni.


How Can I Obtain a Merit Scholarship?

If your GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and class rank place you in the top quartile among your peers, then you have a fair shot of obtaining one or more merit scholarships. Of course, the higher your grades and test scores, the more merit scholarships that you are likely to receive!  The criteria for every merit award is slightly different, however, and is often based on more than just academic performance. (But not always: some merit scholarships are awarded based solely on academic standing.)  In addition to your grades and test scores, a merit scholarship sponsor may also consider teacher recommendations, your region or state of residence, high school of attendance, community involvement, level of dedication to a specific field of study, gender, race, or ethnic background. Especially if the scholarship sponsor is a religious or cultural organization, or an organization dedicated to a certain field of study such as math or art, the scholarship applicants must be significantly involved in the activities of that group to potentially receive any scholarship money.


While you certainly can apply for as many merit awards as you like, some merit scholarships are easier to obtain than others. If you are closely involved with any religious, community, or cultural groups, then merit scholarships offered by those organizations should be obviously be prioritized. Beyond that, as a general rule, scholarships sponsored by local, state, or regional organizations are easier to obtain than merit scholarships that are available to applicants nationwide. The competition for national merit scholarships like the Gates Millennium Scholarship and the Coca Cola Scholars Scholarship can be downright fierce.


Some merit awards are more tedious to obtain than others. While several schools automatically consider admitted students for merit-based aid, the application processes for private scholarships can be detailed and lengthy. The substantial effort required to apply for some private scholarships may not be worth the paltry sum of money being offered. Schools that offer merit-based aid may require students to apply by a certain deadline, which may be earlier than the regular admissions deadline. The application process for school-based merit aid is generally less onerous than that of privately-funded scholarships.


If you are fortunate enough to obtain a merit scholarship, then it is crucial to understand what is required to keep the scholarship. Schools and private scholarship sponsors typically require recipients to maintain a specified minimum GPA for as many years as the scholarship is granted, possibly in addition to other requirements. However, not all scholarships are awarded for every year of college. Some merit-based aid programs only provide assistance for the first year of school, while other programs award decreasing amounts of money beyond freshman year. Many merit-based scholarships are one-time awards with no possibility of annual renewal.


Which Schools Award the Most Merit Scholarships?

For many students, obtaining school-sponsored merit aid is a more attractive option than applying for private scholarships. As such, and especially for students who do not qualify for substantial need-based financial aid, it is important to prioritize schools that offer the most merit-based assistance.