If you’re looking for a way to fund your college education, you should definitely check out merit scholarships. They’re especially great options for high-achieving students who may not qualify for much need-based financial aid. The best part of getting a merit scholarship is, of course, that you’re essentially getting free money for school. But how to get a merit scholarship can still be confusing and overwhelming.
In this post, I’ll explain what defines a merit scholarship before going into both where you can find them and how you can get them. At the end, you’ll find a list of some of the top merit awards available - this way, you can get a head start on getting that cash.
What's a Merit Scholarship?
Merit scholarships are financial awards that are meant to help students pay for school. They’re one of the best forms of financial aid because they’re free money that you never have to pay back, often with few to no strings attached.
Let's answer some of the most common questions that come up about these awards.
How Do Scholarship Organizations Define Merit?
Many merit scholarships look for students with impressive academic achievements. Others focus on community service, sports prowess, professional/business experience, leadership skills, or artistic talent. The most prestigious scholarships tend to go to students who stand out in several different areas.
It's important to note that, although most merit scholarships are awarded primarily based on merit, many take financial need into account. Financial need qualifications (if applicable) will vary based on the scholarship. If you don't think you'll qualify for much need-based aid, you'll want to focus your energy on pure merit-based awards.
Are Merit Scholarships Hard to Get?
This will obviously vary based on the scholarship. In general, the bigger the award, the more serious the competition for the money.
Merit-based scholarships are often difficult to get in the sense that they require dedicated, long-term, impressive performance in order to stand out as an applicant. For example, if you want to apply for a scholarship based on GPA, you will have had to maintain a high GPA since the beginning of high school in order to be a competitive applicant.
In another sense, these scholarships may be less difficult than other awards because you might not have to do anything “extra” in order to qualify (if you're already a meritorious student, that is).
How to Find Merit Scholarships
There are two major sources of merit scholarships: private organizations and colleges/universities themselves. The way you’d go about finding (and applying) for these scholarships depends on their source.
Step 1 of the scholarship app process: figuring out where all these awards are hiding
Merit Scholarships Offered Through Private Organizations
Some of the most well-known (and most generous) merit awards are offered through private and nonprofit organizations.
The mission of many of these organizations is to provide financial assistance to high-achieving students who also demonstrate financial need. As such, it may be tough to find pure merit-based awards from these sources.
To look for merit-based awards, you might want to start with these guides to the country’s top scholarships. Then, you can move on to looking for less competitive local awards. You can also do your own research by Googling scholarships based on your specific interests, skills, or activities. If you're into debate, for example, you might search for "debate scholarships," "debate merit scholarships," or even "debate scholarship [specific school name]."
Merit Scholarships Offered Through Schools
It’s often easier to find pure merit-based scholarships through schools than it is to find them through private or nonprofit organizations. Schools sometimes offer merit-based awards in order to attract competitive applicants.
In order to get your hands on these merit awards, often all you have to do is apply to the school. You’ll automatically be considered for awards once you submit your college application. Colleges and universities often look at the following criteria when awarding merit scholarships (keep in mind that the specifics of these criteria vary widely by school):
- High school GPA
- Standardized test scores (SAT and/or ACT)
- Class rank
Talented athletes can get a ton of merit scholarship money (regardless of financial need), but the process is usually more complicated than just submitting a college app. If you’re looking for merit awards based on your sports performance, you’ll have to go through the proper channels, i.e. you’ll have to be in touch with coaches and/or be formally recruited.
Your award will depend on the school’s merit scholarship policies and how much they want you as an athlete. Learn more about how college recruitment works.
A Small Caveat
Not all schools offer merit scholarships - many top private schools, for example, only offer need-based financial aid. If you’re looking specifically for schools that offer generous merit awards that aren’t dependent on financial need, you should check out our guide to schools with top scholarship programs or our guide to schools that offer full-ride scholarships - just be mindful when it comes to discriminating between need-based and merit-based aid.
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How to Get a Merit Scholarship
Ready to get started seeking out your own scholarship money? Here are all the steps you should take if you want to optimize your chances of winning a merit award.
Step 1: Start Early
As I mentioned before, you have to be in it for the long haul if you hope to qualify for some of the more competitive merit awards.
Many merit awards will ask for transcripts, records, or documentation going back to your freshman year of high school. You don’t have to be perfect - your later high school years will matter more than your freshman or even sophomore year - but you do need to demonstrate a pattern of consistent high-achievement or consistent improvement. This will be important if you hope to come across as a compelling applicant.
Step 2: Choose Your Focus
Even if you're a young high school student, it's prudent to start thinking about what sort of scholarships make the most sense for you. What kind of merit award are you most likely to qualify for? Are you gunning to be a top student, a star athlete, a community service expert, or some combination?
Unless you’re a true stand-out performer in another space, I’d encourage you to focus on your academics before expending energy on other pursuits. It's relatively easy to qualify for merit-based awards at many colleges if you have a strong GPA and/or test scores.
You can be a great debater or have hundreds of community service hours under your belt, but if your grades are underwhelming, you’ll likely hurt both your college admissions and scholarship chances. Merit awards are pretty useless if you can’t use them at the schools you want.
The more you can narrow in on a type of target scholarship, the more successful you'll be.
Step 3: Be Proactive
As I mentioned earlier, it’s important for you to consistently demonstrate that you’re a high-achieving student (or athlete, or volunteer) in order to be competitive for a merit award. This means you’re responsible for tackling any weaknesses in your performance before they become bigger problems.
To be proactive, you can:
- See teachers and coaches for extra help on assignments or problem areas.
- Meet with your guidance or college counselor regularly (perhaps once a quarter) to check in about college plans, grades, career goals, etc. This may also serve you well if you need letters of rec from your counselors later for scholarship applications.
Step 4: Have an ACT/SAT Prep Plan
Standardized test grades are often a big part of qualifying for merit scholarships. The earlier you start laying out a plan for preparing and taking either the ACT or the SAT, the better off you’ll be. To start formulating a plan, check out these guides:
- Should you take the ACT or the SAT?
- How long should you study for the ACT or the SAT?
- ACT/SAT test dates and study plans
- How to get a perfect score on the ACT or the SAT
Step 5: Find "Good Fit" Scholarships
Not all of the scholarships that you’ll be interested in will necessarily be good fits, even if you technically meet all of the eligibility criteria. Applying to scholarships won’t be the only thing on your mind when you're putting together these apps, so it’s important to use your time efficiently when selecting scholarships.
You could technically submit an infinite number of apps, but you’d likely be wasting your time. You don't want to just apply for one or two awards - applying to scholarships is still a numbers game - so aim for 8-10 applications.
Think of it like you think of applying to colleges: select a few “reach,” a few “safety,” and a few “target” scholarships. Use your strengths (e.g. academics, sports, community service) to select scholarships for fit (and eliminate scholarships that aren't worth your time). For example, if you’re top of your class but only played JV-level sports, you might not be the best applicant for a scholar-athlete award.
If a scholarship isn't a natural fit, you'll likely be wasting your time.
Step 6: Submit Polished Applications
Just like with your college applications, you only have one chance to make a good impression when you apply for merit scholarships (especially when it comes to the most competitive awards, where scholarship committees have to process thousands of apps).
If possible, start putting together a tentative list of scholarships as early as your freshman year. This may seem a little too proactive, but keep in mind that many of the top scholarships are due late junior-early senior year. This early research will also help you stay on track to meet eligibility qualifications.
Start seriously thinking about your apps about four months before their due dates. This gives you time to ask for letters of recommendation (if applicable). It also gives you a chance to get feedback on drafts of essays.
Finally, have 2-3 trusted people look over your apps before submission to check for clarity, typos, or missing information. Don’t wait until the actual deadline to submit your application - you never know when you might run into technical issues that could prevent submission. It's best to schedule submission 3-5 days before the official due date.
What Are the Top Merit Scholarships?
If you're eager to begin researching merit awards, the following scholarships are a good place to start. You’ll find a list of some of the biggest pure merit scholarships, in addition to a list of merit + financial need-based scholarships.
For more comprehensive lists of top scholarship programs, check out our guides to the best scholarships available for high school juniors and seniors.
Pure Merit Awards
Merit + Financial Need Awards
Horatio Alger Scholarship Program
Jackie Robinson’s Foundation Scholarship Program
Engebretson Foundation Scholarship
Jack Kent Cook Foundation College Scholarship Program
Elks National Foundation Most Valuable Student Competition
One of the hardest parts of searching for scholarships is that there isn't one centralized, reliable source of information on available awards. To help make the search a bit easier, we've put together several guides on various types of award programs.
If you're interested in other merit-based awards, read about guaranteed scholarships based on ACT/SAT scores. Looking for scholarship apps that won't interfere with school or extracurriculars? Check out our guide to the 12 easiest scholarship applications.
Finally, if looming college bills are getting to be a bit overwhelming, read more about how to get a full ride scholarship and how to apply for financial aid.
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Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.