How to get merit aid for college


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Money for college doesn’t grow on trees. Or does it? Every year, billions of dollars wait to be plucked from the branches by college students seeking merit-based aid.

The National Merit Scholarship Program alone plans to award more than $30 million in spring 2021.

Brainiacs merit recognition, but a student can earn merit aid based on talent in athletics and other interests, including puppetry and vegetarianism, as well as lineage.

So what’s the catch?


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Patience, diligence, and timing come into play. This guide can help students who are starting the search for merit-based aid.

Related: The differences in direct vs. indirect student loans

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What Is Merit Aid?

College aid can generally be broken down into two categories.

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1. Need-based

Eligibility for need-based aid is based solely on the ability to pay for college. Students can look for state, possibly school and federal aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA, sharing information about income and assets.

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2. Merit-based

Merit-based aid takes factors beyond financial need into account. According to the Department of Education, merit-based “means that something is based on a student’s skill or ability.”

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Qualifying for Aid

Students can qualify for merit-based aid, often referred to as merit-based scholarships, with a variety of factors.

Merit scholarships are awarded on merit rather than demonstrated financial need.

Scholarship money does not have to be paid back — it’s a gift. Merit aid can be a one-time payment, or it could be renewable year after year, depending on eligibility and terms of the aid.

Depending on a student’s financial needs, merit aid could cover part or all of their education costs. It might be just one component of a larger aid package.

Merit aid can be awarded for both undergraduate and graduate programs, and could be anything from a couple hundred dollars for books and supplies to thousands of dollars to help cover tuition.

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Applying for Merit Aid

While merit scholarships are often referred to as “free money” when it comes to funding education, there is some work involved.

Each scholarship will likely have its own requirements and application process, which might include personal essays, recommendations, and interviews.

It’s important to read through each application carefully so it’s filled out without error.

Merit-based aid does not hinge on the financial need of the student or family, so should you submit the FAFSA first? You don’t need to fill out financial forms to apply for a private merit scholarship.

But some colleges won’t consider you for any of their scholarships, including academic ones, until you’ve submitted the FAFSA, according to the Department of Education.

So it’s worthwhile to call the college admissions office to see if a financial aid application is required to apply for any merit scholarships at that school.

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When and How to Apply

Every application will have a different deadline and application window. Some deadlines may be as early as a year before college starts.

The Department of Education recommends that high school students start applying for scholarships between their junior and senior year.

If a college offers merit scholarships, students can apply directly. Those awards tend to be the biggest and require the least amount of work to obtain.

You can learn about private merit scholarships by using search engines like, and

In addition, it’s a good idea to talk to your school guidance counselor and the leaders of any organizations you participate in to suss out merit scholarships.

And you might want to look for smaller, locally sponsored scholarships. The competition for them tends to be more limited.

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Qualifying for Merit Aid

Qualifications for merit scholarships will vary by organization. Some common criteria are:

  • GPA: The grade point average needed to get an academic scholarship varies. For some merit scholarships, students need to maintain a certain GPA year over year to keep receiving aid.
  • Course requirements: Students may need to take and pass certain courses.
  • Athletics: Participation in a sport during high school and college is a requirement for certain merit-based awards.
  • Personal statements: Some merit awards just hinge on a well-written essay from the applicant.
  • Extracurriculars: Being involved in anything from organ playing to bowling could make a student eligible for merit aid from private organizations.
  • Employer: For graduate programs, some employers may offer merit aid to help retain and attract talent.
  • Locale: Local community organizations may offer college-bound students merit aid. A student might only need to be from a certain city or town to qualify for a merit scholarship from an organization.

The above are just a few examples of eligibility.

Students can apply through their college for merit aid, but there’s also a seemingly endless list of organizations that offer scholarships of various sizes for students who fit their criteria.

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Which Schools Offer the Most Merit Aid?

Not all schools offer merit aid. However, at schools where merit aid is offered, on average 15% of the student body recently received a merit award from the university, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Here’s what students can expect when it comes to merit aid from schools:

  • Generally speaking, private colleges award more merit aid than public institutions.
  • Ivy league schools don’t grant merit aid. No Ivy League institutions offer merit aid to their students. Other competitive universities, such as MIT, Stanford and Caltech, don’t offer merit aid either.
  • Some higher-cost colleges will offer more merit aid than others. The cost of attending some schools can send a student into shock. However, some costlier schools will offer more merit-based scholarships. Oberlin College, for example, recently offered 49% of its student body merit-based aid, $17,000 on average, to offset tuition and fees that have reached nearly $57,000.
  • Out-of-state students might be awarded more merit aid. When it comes to public colleges and universities, out-of-state students will likely receive more merit aid than in-state students. Because of the higher cost of attendance for out-of-state students, public schools often offer them merit aid to be more competitive.
  • The farther a student travels for school, the more they may be eligible for merit aid. Schools prioritize a diverse student body, and that includes where everyone comes from. Most students choose schools within 100 miles from home. If a student travels further, there’s a chance the college or university may be more willing to grant merit aid to help create a more diverse student population.
  • Honors programs may offer more merit aid. State school honors programs can sometimes come with tuition discounts, or academic scholarship for students who get into prestigious programs.

Keeping these trends in mind could help students think more strategically about where they’ll attend college based on the chances of being awarded merit aid from the schools.

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Where Else to Find Merit Aid

Colleges and universities award merit aid, but there are many other ways to find scholarships, including private organizations and state level scholarship directories. Consider exploring a few of the following avenues when seeking merit aid opportunities:

  • Local groups: Local clubs or foundations offer scholarships. Community chapters of the Lions Club or Rotary Club offer aid for students seeking higher education. Because there’s a smaller pool of applicants, local merit scholarships may even be less competitive.
  • Cultural organizations: Students from minority backgrounds have an opportunity for specific merit aid. Students of Native American descent, those who identify as LGBTQ and women might qualify for scholarships.
  • Foundations and nonprofits: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offers full scholarships for those who qualify. Local nonprofits or educational foundations might offer small awards to students as well.
  • Businesses: National companies, such as Google , offer generous merit aid.
  • Niche interests and programs: Students who have an interest or hobby can search for merit aid surrounding it. Everything from greeting card creators to puppetry enthusiasts and promoters of vegetarianism have a chance to capitalize on their passions.

The size of the awards will vary, but seeking out aid in unexpected places can help drive down the cost of education.

Once a student is granted merit aid, the funding might be directly credited to the school to pay for tuition, room, board or other costs. Or the aid might come directly to the recipient via check.

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The Takeaway

A pot brimming with billions of dollars in college merit aid sits waiting every year. Stellar students and athletes come to mind as popular recipients, but merit scholarships are awarded based on other talents, too. To apply, deadlines and details require attention.

Merit aid might just be a piece of the puzzle, depending on the size and terms of the scholarship. Once federal and merit aid options have been exhausted, a private student loan may help bridge any gaps.

Learn more:

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