One of the most common misconceptions in higher education financing is that all scholarships are granted based on financial need or getting recruited by a division one college or university to play a popular sport like football or basketball. In reality, there are many scholarships that focus entirely on grades, extracurriculars, skills and other factors. These are known as merit scholarships.
Merit scholarships are a great way to pay for college without taking out loans, and all students - no matter their GPA - should apply for merit scholarships. Read below to learn how merit scholarships work, how to qualify for them and how to improve your odds of winning one or hopefully several.
What is a merit scholarship?
A merit scholarship is typically awarded based on academic achievement (academic excellence) or extracurricular activities. They can be given directly by the school or by a private organization to talented students to help cover cost of tuition, among other costs that may typically have required student loans.
Like other types of scholarships, such as need-based scholarships, merit awards may be given on a one-off basis or renewed for several years.
Undergraduate, graduate and professional students may qualify for merit scholarships. These scholarships can be used to cover cost of attendance, room and board, textbooks and other necessary expenses for a college education.
How to apply for a merit scholarship
The key to winning any scholarship begins with reading through and understanding all of the rules and then following instructions to the letter. Too many students hurt their chances by not including all of the necessary documents or by missing thedeadline. If you have any questions, make sure to reach out to the scholarship coordinator.
If you're not a standout student, use the essay portion as your chance to shine. Talk about anything that sets you apart from other students. For example, if you're the first person in your family to attend college, make sure the scholarship committee knows about it.
Frequently asked questions about merit scholarships
What kinds of merit scholarships are there?
You can get a merit scholarship based on your success in athletics, academics or other areas. There may also be merit scholarships for students from a certain ethnicity, gender or other minority category. These can be available to incoming students, prospective students, or undergraduate students (first-year students) who may already be at a private or public university. For athletics, these scholarships may also be referred to as athletic scholarships
Where can I find merit scholarships?
Students can find merit scholarships in a number of ways, including creating a profile at Scholarships.com to see which ones you get matched to or even through our Scholarship Directory.
When you apply to college, many schools will automatically consider you for the merit scholarships they offer as an institution. However, some will have separate scholarship applications. Contact the financial aid department for each school and ask what their merit scholarship process is.
Once you’re enrolled in a school, you should keep applying for merit scholarships. Many students stop looking for scholarships after their first year, assuming that they’re only available for incoming freshmen. In fact, upperclassmen can still qualify for many types of merit scholarships.
Do I need to complete the FAFSA to qualify for a merit scholarship?
Some merit scholarships do not require that students submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to be eligible, but many schools will. This allows students to maximize their federal and state need-based financial aid before receiving internal awards.
It is a good idea to check with your college's financial aid office or website to determine their specific rules with regard to merit-based scholarship opportunities.
Many students think that filling out the FAFSA only matters if they can qualify for need-based aid. If you skip out on the FAFSA, you may hurt your chances of receiving merit-based scholarships.
Do I need a perfect GPA to receive a merit scholarship?
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a 4.0 GPA to win a merit scholarship. The exact GPA requirement will vary, but usually starts at 3.0. Again, this will vary by school, so check with the financial aid office of the school you plan to attend. There are many generous merit scholarships offered to those across GPA requirements.
Some experts say that a 3.5 GPA is necessary to win a merit scholarship, but scholarship providers may look at other aspects like your extracurricular record, recommendation letters and essay.
Remember, as long as you meet the basic requirements, you should apply to as many merit scholarships as possible. There’s no point in taking yourself out of the running by not applying.
How can I increase the odds of winning a merit scholarship?
Some schools offer a generous merit aid package - as long as you apply early enough. Many internal scholarships are only given on a first-come, first-serve basis. Once you determine which schools you’re interested in, try to submit your application as soon as possible. The earlier you begin looking and the more time you spend on finding and applying, the better your chances of winning.
If your family is not eligible for need-based aid but can’t afford the full cost of college tuition, look for schools that still offer merit scholarship program.