A Guide to Applying for Merit-Based College Scholarships


A Guide to Applying for Merit-Based College Scholarships

College is expensive. More and more expensive, it seems, every year. So it should come as no surprise that many students are dependent on financial aid to help their families absorb the cost. While the process of applying for need-based aid is fairly straightforward and outlined on university websites, merit scholarships and aid are often less obvious. Here’s a (short) guide to maximizing your opportunities for merit-based college scholarships.

What is a Merit-Based Scholarship?

Merit-based college scholarships are financial aid awards for a student’s time in college that are granted on the basis of academic achievement. Students who’ve performed well in high school or on standardized tests can qualify for these scholarships if they meet certain criteria. Merit-based college scholarships are different from need-based aid. A need-based award is one which is granted to a student by a school’s financial aid office based on an individual’s family finances and financial need. Some schools, for example, the Ivies, do not offer merit-based aid at all.   

Don’t assume you don’t qualify for need-based aid. Fill out a FAFSA to keep you qualified.

At many colleges, the boundary between merit-based college scholarships and need-based aid isn’t very well-defined. Many merit-based scholarships have a need component, and different types of need-based aid are awarded with merit consideration. For example, you’d rather receive a grant, which you don’t have to pay back, than a loan, which you do.

And the threshold for qualifying for need-based aid might be higher than you think. You don’t have to be “low-income” to receive need-based aid. If you intend to pursue merit scholarships, cover your bases. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA! To fill out the FAFSA, you’ll need the following information:

  • Social Security Number
  • Tax Return
  • Alien Registration Number (if not a citizen)
  • Bank Statements and Records of Investments (if applicable)
  • Records of Untaxed Income (if applicable)

For more information about the FAFSA and how it is used by colleges, visit the Department of Education’s FAFSA website to get started.

You Don’t Have to Apply for Most Merit-Based College Scholarships...

The vast majority of merit-based college scholarships are referred to the office of scholarships and financial aid by the admissions office and do not require separate submission. Even for scholarships that require specialized interests or narrower academic talents, these are sorted and referred to the appropriate bodies by the admissions office.

In other words, by submitting your application for admission you are automatically considered for most of any college’s merit scholarships. Just keep in mind that on most online applications, you will need to select the appropriate box when asked whether you would like to be considered for merit-based college scholarships.

...But Some Require Additional Follow-Up Essays or Interviews

Although few merit-based college scholarships require separate submission, many of the most prestigious scholarships offered by a school, or those with the largest financial awards, require additional essays or interviews. Once your application has been referred to the office of scholarships and financial aid, and once they have, in turn, nominated you for a scholarship, you may be contacted with both good news of your admission—congratulations!—and requests for follow-up materials which the scholarship committee will use to evaluate you.

Because individual scholarships often recognize excellence in particular fields which aren’t often addressed specifically on the college’s application for general admission, those committees often require further information to identify the best candidates. The most common requests are either an additional essay on a narrower subject or an interview to qualify for the award.

Be on the lookout for these within the two months following your application submission, and be diligent about completing the required supplements in a timely fashion. You often receive little more than a week to turn these materials around.

Apply to Colleges Where You’d Be at the Top

The best strategy for maximizing your opportunities for merit-based college scholarships is to apply to schools that would be eager to recruit you.

Because colleges are in competition for the best students, many colleges, particularly those with lower public profiles, often use merit scholarships to lure top students to their campuses. So, if you’re hoping to win the award, when making your list, make sure to pick a college where you’d be a “top student”. Apply to college where you fall into at least the top 25% in all measurable markers: GPA, test scores, and class rank.

Apply Before the Priority Deadlines

Make sure you apply on time for consideration! Because it takes additional time to consider students for scholarships, some colleges have “priority deadlines” in advance of their Regular Decision deadlines for application, especially those with rolling admissions. So, watch out for priority deadlines, particularly in late November and early December!

A few notable universities with priority deadlines: University of Southern California (December 1), Tulane University (December 5), Purdue University (November 1), Indiana University (November 1), and many others.

Research Unique Scholarship Options for All Schools on Your List (and Do It Early!)

In addition to the merit-based college scholarships for which you will already be considered as an applicant for general admission, many schools also offer scholarships with separate applications. These are often the school’s most prestigious awards, which typically have a separate committee that evaluates applicants, and a longer, more complex application process. Because of this labor-intensive process, many of the initial deadlines are in November or early December. Since there are additional application requirements—such as letters of recommendation, video submissions, or school nominations—as well as lengthy written essays, you will need to identify these as early as possible.

To find these scholarships and their merit criteria, locate the scholarships page for each school on your college list.

A few notable examples:

To check whether your top choice schools offer similar merit-based college scholarships, you can Google the name of the school along with “merit scholarship” and go from there.

Scholarship Resources for Students

To help students navigate the enormous number of merit- and need-based scholarships available, here are a few resources. First of all, here are two of the most popular scholarship search websites:

  • Fastweb.com — This site matches students with not only scholarships, but part-time job opportunities and colleges within their budgets.
  • Scholarships.com — This resource has a very full database of scholarships, including those based exclusively or in part on merit. It also has a helpful search function that sorts your most promising scholarships based on interest, demographic, talent, geography, need, and more.


Although there are several similar search resources for students, some of the most reliable for locating the best opportunities for funding aren’t as obvious as these.

If you’re someone who’s academically gifted and might need aid due to the ever-rising tuition, merit-based college scholarships are a great way to not only receive financial support, but be recognized for your intellectual ability. Plan ahead so that you can take advantage of the many opportunities that are available for strong students that come with early deadline. Get searching, and good luck!

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