Zina Kumok Image Written By: Zina Kumok | Edited By: Kevin Ladd | Updated: July 24, 2024

Merit Scholarships

merit scholarships

One of the most common misconceptions students have is that all scholarships are need-based. In reality, there are many merit scholarships that focus entirely on grades, extracurriculars, skills and other factors when making awards. Merit scholarships are one of the best ways to pay for college without taking out loans, and all students - no matter their GPA - should apply for these scholarships. Read below to learn how merit scholarships work, how to qualify for them and how to improve your odds of winning one.

What is a merit scholarship?

A merit scholarship is typically awarded based on academic success or extracurricular record. They can be given directly by the school or by a separate for-profit or non-profit organization.

Like other scholarships, merit scholarships may be given on a one-off basis or be renewable for several years. Undergraduate, graduate and professional students may qualify for merit scholarships. These scholarships can be used to cover tuition, room and board, textbooks and other necessary expenses.

How to apply for a merit scholarship

The key to winning any scholarship is to thoroughly read through and understand all the rules. Too many students hurt their chances by not including all necessary documents or by missing the application deadline. If you have any questions or need clarification, make sure to reach out to the scholarship coordinator.

If you're not a standout student, look at 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 this.

Types of merit scholarships

There are several kinds of merit scholarships that students can win. Here are the most common categories:


When most people think about merit scholarships, they generally think about academic scholarships. These are given to students who have excellent grades and high test scores.

Academic scholarships often have a minimum GPA requirement, but you’ll also often need letters of recommendation and a winning essay. Remember, even with a near perfect transcript you still need to stand out.


Athletic scholarships are generally given from the school itself. However, there are also organizations that award scholarships for sports-inclined students. There may or may not be some athletic achievement requirements, such as being a varsity athlete or going to the state championships. You may also need a reference letter from a coach.

For example, the Brian Pearson Memorial Scholarship is given to a student from Iowa who is also a stellar athlete. There are two awards, one for a male athlete and one for a female athlete. The scholarship is worth $1,000.


Artistic scholarships are given to students who display a talent for the arts. To apply for one of these scholarships, you usually have to submit your portfolio or a selection of your work. These scholarships may also require a recommendation letter from a current or previous art teacher.

These artistic scholarships are often only available to certain kinds of artists. For example, the BMI Future Jazz Master Scholarship is given to a college student studying jazz. However, there may also be some general art scholarships.


A demographic-based merit scholarship is given to a student who is part of a certain group. For example, there are certain merit-based scholarships just for Asian-American students or students who identify as LGBTQIA+.

For example, the Blacks at Microsoft scholarship is given to an African-American student who is majoring in a STEM field. This merit-based scholarship has both demographic and academic requirements that students must meet to qualify.

Continue reading the article below the scholarship list.

25 Merit Scholarships with Approaching Deadlines

Frequently asked questions about merit scholarships

You can get a merit scholarship based on your success in athletics, academics or in other areas. There may also be merit scholarships for students from a certain ethnicity, gender or other minority group.

Students can find merit scholarships through scholarship directories, like Scholarships.com, or by directly searching for awards on Google.

When you apply to college, many schools will automatically consider you for merit scholarships. However, some will have separate scholarship applications. Contact the financial aid department at 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 they’re only available for incoming freshmen. However, upperclassmen can still qualify for many types of merit scholarships.

Some merit scholarships do not require that students submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be eligible. However, many schools will still ask students to complete the FAFSA. This allows students to maximize their federal and state financial aid before receiving internal awards.

Many students mistakenly think that filling out the FAFSA only matters if they can qualify for need-based aid. If you skip out on the FAFSA though, you may hurt your chances of receiving merit-based scholarships.

Plus, filling out the FAFSA is your only way to get federal student loans, which most students need to pay for college. Also, circumstances can always change. Even if you aren’t eligible for need-based aid now, it doesn’t mean you won’t be in the future. Get in the habit of filling out the FAFSA every year.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, and really even before that, many schools have gone "test optional", making it easier for students who don’t test well to get accepted to one of their top 2-3 schools. Because of this, there are going to be more students who opt not to take standardized tests.

Some scholarships have updated their applications to reflect this and no longer require students to submit their SAT or ACT scores. However, this isn’t true for all scholarships. If you don’t want to take these standardized tests, look for scholarships that don’t ask for them or list them as optional.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a 4.0 GPA to win a merit scholarship. The exact GPA requirement will vary based on the scholarship, but it usually starts at 3.0.

Some experts say that a minimum 3.5 GPA is necessary to win a merit scholarship. However, the awarding organization may look at other aspects like your extracurricular record, recommendation letters and essay. They may also consider your life circumstances, such as being in the foster care system, losing a parent early on or being an immigrant.

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.

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.

Also, many students lose out on scholarships just because they don’t submit everything that is required. For example, if you are supposed to send in two letters of recommendation and you only provide one, your application will likely be denied.

Remember, scholarships often receive hundreds or even thousands of applicants. Not submitting everything is an easy way to get disqualified immediately.

Also, have someone look at your scholarship application before you submit it and correct any typos. These mistakes may make it look like you don’t really care and can hurt your chances.

Some schools do not offer merit-based aid and only provide awards based on demonstrated financial need. For example, Ivy League schools generally only offer need-based aid, even if you have a perfect GPA and get a 2400 on the SATs.

If your family is not eligible for need-based aid but can’t afford the full cost of college tuition, look for schools that offer merit scholarships.

If you are accepted at an Ivy League school and want to attend, focus on applying for all the third-party scholarships you can find. These can help you bridge the financial gap so you don’t end up with hundreds of thousands in student loans.

Most scholarships are only given to U.S. citizens, permanent residents and other eligible non-citizens. If you’re an international student, getting a merit scholarship will be much tougher.

You may be better off looking for scholarships within your native country and using those to pay for your education abroad. Also, some schools offer discounted tuition to international students. This can also save you money and minimize how much you have to borrow.

Some scholarships are only given for one year, whereas others can be renewed for several years. However, to renew a scholarship, you usually have to meet some basic requirements, like maintaining a certain GPA or taking a certain number of credit hours toward your degree.

If you fail to meet those requirements, your scholarship may be revoked and you may not be able to get it back. You should try as hard as possible to keep your merit scholarship because it’s much easier to renew an award than to win a new one.

Merit scholarships can vary greatly. Some are only given to students who are majoring in a certain field, like engineering, whereas others are open to all students.

It might be easier to win a scholarship that is specific to your major or degree. However, if you haven't declared a major yet, it’s still possible to win a general merit scholarship. But, as soon as you find something you’re passionate about, start applying for specific scholarships.

While merit scholarships are often focused on traditional undergraduate students, there are still tons of awards for community or technical college students.

For example, the Coca-Cola Community College Academic Team program gives out scholarships, ranging from $1,000 to $1,500, to community college students.

If you’re already enrolled in community college, reach out to your financial aid office and ask about potential scholarships. They can guide you to any internal awards that you’re a good fit for.

Merit scholarships are not limited to just undergraduate students. They may also be available for graduate and professional school students.

For example, the Future Attorneys of America Merit Scholarship is given to a dedicated law school student. This $5,000 scholarship requires a brief essay and a minimum 3.5 GPA.

While you’re in graduate school, you should keep looking for scholarships. And if you’re employed, ask your company if they offer any scholarships or tuition reimbursement programs. That’s another easy way to get some of your expenses paid for.

When you apply for a scholarship, the committee will usually review your GPA or transcript. A failed class won’t help your chances, but it won’t necessarily disqualify you.

This may be especially true if the class isn’t relevant to the scholarship or what you're studying. If there is an opportunity to talk about what you learned from failing the class that can be a great place to explain how you’re still a dedicated student.