There’s no denying it: higher education is pricey. As a college-bound student, you might be concerned about how you and your family can pay for tuition, fees, room, board, and textbooks. The great news is that if you’re a high-achieving student, you might qualify for one or more merit-based scholarships.
But what is a merit scholarship? And how do you qualify for this kind of award? In this article, we’ll answer your questions in detail. We’ll also cover how to find these opportunities and some tips for applying so you can put your best foot forward.
What Is a Merit-Based Scholarship?
A scholarship is free money that you can use to reduce the cost of college that you don’t have to pay back, and it is usually tax free. Some scholarships are need based, meaning they are awarded based on a student’s ability to pay for school. Merit-based scholarships, sometimes called merit scholarships, are awarded based on academic, artistic, or athletic skills as well as civic engagement (i.e., volunteering in the community) or leadership in extracurricular activities.
The most prestigious—and therefore most competitive—merit-based scholarships recognize students who excel in multiple areas. These programs generally provide the most generous financial awards. Additionally, some merit scholarships honor exceptional students who also demonstrate significant financial need.
What Do Merit Scholarships Pay For?
Merit-based financial awards can occasionally cover a substantial portion of four or more years of college, but full-ride scholarships are exceedingly rare. That said, combining merit scholarships with need-based awards, grants, and work-study (if you qualify) is a terrific way to graduate from college debt-free, with minimal debt, or with modest out-of-pocket expense.
Most merit scholarships are deposited directly into your student account at your chosen university. Some awards may cover only parts of your education, such as tuition and fees but not room and board. A few merit-based scholarships are distributed directly to the student, who can use the money however they please, such as for a new laptop, travel to and from college, or living expenses if they’re residing off campus.
In addition to differing in what they pay for, scholarships differ in whether they are one-time awards or renewable aid. Some awards may be renewable for up to four years of college, whereas others may be one-time scholarships that you can apply to only a single academic year. In fact, many students continue applying for scholarships during college, including merit programs and honor society financial awards that are reserved for students in their sophomore, junior, or senior years.
Be aware that most multiyear merit scholarships are contingent on you meeting specific requirements semester after semester. For example, you may need to maintain a particular student status and/or satisfactory standing in a given area. That may mean you’ll have to attend as a full-time rather than a part-time student, earn at least a certain GPA each semester, stay enrolled in specific courses of study, complete a certain number of volunteer hours, perform in recitals, or play collegiate sports in order to renew your scholarship.
What Are Merit-Based Scholarships Based On?
Merit-based scholarships get their name from assessing your merit, meaning skills or talents you have demonstrated in academics, specific subjects (e.g., STEM or music), extracurricular activities, leadership positions, community service, and/or or team and individual sports.
Academic merit scholarships are often based on grades in certain subjects, cumulative GPAs, class rank, and/or standardized test scores. Artistic merit scholarships honor exemplary skill in one or more of the visual or performing arts, such as painting, drawing, dance, drama, or music. Athletic scholarships, as you would expect, recognize your prowess in sports.
These coveted financial awards are often reserved for applicants who demonstrate consistently outstanding performance over the course of several years. Eligibility may also be limited to students who meet specific requirements, such as year in school (e.g., scholarships that are open to only first-year college students); particular fields of study; a specific demographic (e.g., women or underrepresented racial identities); residency in a certain state; or membership in a particular organization, such as the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) or a particular faith.
Some scholarships are even based on affiliation. You may qualify for a scholarship, for example, if you’re the family member of an alum of a particular college or are related to a member of a specific organization.
Such requirements sometimes make merit scholarships difficult to win. Nevertheless, unless you do not meet the basic requirements, it never hurts to apply because some awards recognize growth and potential in a particular area.
Who Awards Merit Scholarships?
Merit-based scholarships are often awarded by individual colleges and universities. However, not all schools offer merit-based scholarships; Ivy League colleges and many other highly selective schools, for instance, offer only need-based awards because their admissions criteria are already so selective.
Outside of academia, you can find merit scholarships offered by both public and private organizations, from community nonprofits, churches, and civic groups to philanthropic foundations, national honor societies, and international corporations. Although the federal government offers grants, need-based scholarships, and student loans, they do not host scholarship programs, but many state or local governments do.
Why Schools and Organizations Offer Merit Scholarships
University administrators are aware that the cost of a college education has skyrocketed over the past several decades. So schools offer merit scholarships to reward students who exhibit exceptional promise by offsetting their tuition and other expenses.
Merit scholarships are also a way for each school to recruit the best and brightest students to campus—and to compete with other institutions for those high-achieving students. Say College X charges more than $55,000 per year whereas University Y costs only $35,000 per year; many applicants might see University Y as a better deal for the same degree. But if College X offers merit scholarships of $30,000, bringing down their annual price tag to around $25,000, then they can say they are actually less expensive than University Y—and are therefore less likely to lose exemplary students to their competition.
Colleges and universities as well as organizations outside academia sometimes offer scholarships to improve diversity or promote community or national service. For example, several schools and professional associations now offer scholarships to women majoring in STEM fields. Others award students who will earn education degrees and commit to serving as teachers in lower-income communities after graduating from college.
Some corporations host scholarship programs because supporting educational initiatives improves those companies’ public reputations. Many organizations also provide scholarships to attract outstanding, motivated students to their career field or even to recruit future members or employees. Given that potential recruitment angle, be sure to read each scholarship’s conditions carefully in case accepting the award contractually obligates you to pay membership dues or work for an employer before or after graduation.
Combining Merit Scholarships
Many students apply multiple merit awards to a given year’s tuition and other fees. For example, you could stack any number of smaller merit awards from various community organizations on top of a National Merit Scholarship plus an academic scholarship awarded by your university. You can also combine merit scholarships with other types of aid, including need-based scholarships, grants, work-study, federal student loans, and private loans.
That said, some scholarship programs have stipulations that their merit awards cannot be combined with other merit scholarships.
For example, if you are awarded Merit Scholarship A and Merit Scholarship B from the same institution, that university might have a provision that states you can accept only one. In that case, you would have to choose between the two awards. Otherwise, you might ask whether you can apply them in different academic years if the scholarships are not renewable annually.
Where to Find Merit Scholarships
Academic institutions tend to make information about their merit scholarships fairly visible on their websites. However, smaller community organizations may not advertise their scholarship programs as widely. So here are some tips for finding merit scholarships from their different sources.
Merit-Based Awards from Colleges and Universities
To discover a particular college or university’s merit award opportunities, search online for merit scholarship [school name]. You should also scour each institution’s admissions, scholarships, and financial aid websites—and even pages devoted to specific majors, offices of community engagement, and the arts—to learn what’s available, who qualifies, and how to apply.
Then, at each college you’re applying to, ask your admissions counselor about any merit scholarships that you might qualify for. They can often give you the inside scoop on how competitive the awards are, how to craft an application that impresses the scholarship committee, and where you can get more detailed information about the opportunity.
Merit-Based Awards for Athletes
If you’re applying specifically for athletic scholarships offered by the colleges you’re applying to, your recruiter is likely your best source of information. This is the case regardless of whether you’re applying to NCAA Division I or II schools. Division III schools cannot award full or partial athletic scholarships, but they may award academic or other financial awards if you exhibit a combination of strong grades, athletic performance, and/or other distinguishing skill sets.
Merit Scholarships from Non-Collegiate Organizations
For merit scholarships from organizations outside colleges and universities, one of your best resources is your high school counselor, who can suggest scholarship opportunities that fit your academic and extracurricular profile. Consulting teachers and tutors is another important step in locating academic, artistic, and athletic scholarship programs.
Scholarship Databases and Lists
Online, you can find available financial awards using the U.S. Department of Labor’s Scholarship Finder tool, which allows you to search by keyword and location. We also recommend you check out our guide to the nation’s top scholarships, which includes both merit and need-based programs. And if you’re searching for scholarships that might be a little less competitive, we’ve compiled our best suggestions for how to find and apply for scholarships in your local community.
Keyword Searches for Merit Awards
Conducting personalized research is another great way to discover available scholarships that match your resume. For example, if you excel in mathematics, you might google math scholarships, math merit scholarships, and math merit-based scholarships. If you have an outstanding record of community service, you might search for the phrases community service scholarships, civic engagement scholarships, and volunteer scholarships.
And remember that you don’t have to be an all-A student with a perfect SAT score to qualify for merit awards, so when researching online for scholarships, don’t forget to think outside the box because there are scholarships for almost every imaginable skill, interest, or activity. For example, there are financial awards for students who are Star Trek, who promote vegetarianism, and who identify as women who want to pursue careers in writing horror. Try searching for your hobby or interest followed by the word scholarship to see what might be on offer.
Tips for Applying
You’ve set your intentions for applying to merit aid programs. Now, here are some suggestions for improving your chances of actually winning one or more scholarships.
Research Scholarships Early
As you begin collating your list of colleges to apply to, research relevant scholarship programs (and all your other financial aid options) at the same time. We recommend starting your search as early as your first or second year in high school. This gives you plenty of lead time to make sure you’re focused on excelling in the areas you’ll need to be competitive for the merit scholarships you’ll eventually apply for.
Keep Track of Deadlines
As you research, keep a spreadsheet of the names, requirements, and due dates for both colleges and scholarships; if you’re searching early, you’ll need to update these deadlines each summer or fall. Some scholarship due dates occur before university admissions deadlines, or you may have to submit a college application early to be considered for that institution’s merit programs.
Moreover, scholarships may require significant effort in terms of gathering materials, writing essays, or requesting recommendations, so you’ll want to know your deadlines and start preparing your scholarship applications well in advance. We suggest getting started on your applications four months prior to scholarship deadlines.
Follow the Instructions Carefully
Many universities automatically review your application for admission to determine your eligibility for the merit scholarships that they award; other schools require you to submit supplemental materials. Be sure to check each college’s admissions and financial aid websites to determine whether you’ll need to provide additional materials to apply for their merit scholarships—and to find out exactly what their eligibility requirements are.
When seeking merit aid from organizations outside a college or university, you’ll likely need to submit an application that is separate from those you use for college admissions. These applications may require you to fill out information forms, submit transcripts, include recommendation letters, send audition videos or portfolios of artistic work, or write essays responding to specific prompts. Follow each scholarship program’s directions closely so that you’re submitting all the required documents on time and in the preferred format.
Weigh the Effort Against the Reward
If you’re a student who will have to pay for college on your own or your family cannot afford higher education, you may need to apply for every scholarship and financial aid opportunity you are eligible for. In that case, we suggest that you set aside a certain amount of time each week to apply for these awards, fill out the various requirements systematically and meticulously, get feedback on scholarship essays, and keep a checklist of required and submitted materials as you submit each application.
However, you may notice that some scholarship programs require enormous effort but offer relatively small payouts (e.g., $100–$200). Or you may be considering a hefty scholarship that is also fiercely competitive and requires an onerous multistep application process.
Consider these opportunities realistically to determine whether they are worth your while. You may want to devote your time and attention exclusively to larger financial awards (e.g., $500 or more). You should also discuss with your family members, high school counselor, and trusted teachers whether to apply for the most prestigious scholarships if, for example, you only barely fulfill the eligibility requirements.
And don’t waste your time applying for scholarships if you don’t meet all their fundamental criteria for eligibility. Instead, focus your time on applying for scholarships you do qualify for.
Seek Nominations and Recommendation Letters Early
Note that some merit scholarships require you to be nominated by a teacher, high school counselor, coach, or other individual who can speak to your skills and abilities before you even apply. Other awards may require you to submit reference letters by faculty or mentors as part of your application.
If either of these is the case, pay careful attention to who qualifies as a nominator or reference, and ask your recommenders for their letters well in advance of the deadline. Check out our expert guide on requesting letters of recommendation for more helpful tips on this part of your scholarship application.
Solicit Constructive Criticism
Always try to get feedback from trusted mentors on any application materials you’re planning to submit. This is why it’s important to start the application process early: you’ll need several weeks to give teachers, tutors, high school counselors, family members, or friends plenty of time to review your documents and provide their suggestions for improvement—and you’ll need at least a few days to implement their comments.
Also, some scholarship programs may require interviews. This is a step usually required for more selective awards. If you’ve been invited for an interview, ask your high school counselor, teachers, or other trusted mentors to set up mock interviews so you can practice articulating why you are the best candidate for the program.
Apply for a Variety of Scholarships
Just as you will apply to safety, match, and reach schools, consider applying to a mix of scholarships that range in terms of their source (e.g., national and local organizations), level of competitiveness, the amount of the award, and the eligibility requirements—as long as you meet all of the qualifications. For example, if you’re an above-average student athlete who is also captain of a varsity sports team, consider applying for academic, athletic, and leadership scholarships—or awards that recognize students who excel in various areas. This will maximize your chances of earning merit aid.
Use Merit Scholarships to Negotiate Your College Costs
If you’ve applied for and earned a merit scholarship, congratulations! Now, here’s an insider secret: if you’re a particularly stellar student but you’ve been awarded a financial aid package from your top-choice school that isn’t sufficient, you can also use merit scholarships earned at other universities to request a negotiation of your offer at your preferred college.
This is sometimes called a professional judgment or financial aid appeal. Many students aren’t aware that this is an option, but the process is similar to bargaining for a better sale price on a car or negotiating a better salary when applying for jobs.
To make a merit-based appeal of your aid package, write a persuasive letter stating why you are applying for additional financial support. Attach copies of merit scholarship offers from competing schools, supply information about your skills and talents to complement your original admissions application, and provide any additional glowing letters of recommendation. By going the extra mile of negotiating their financial aid package, some top-tier students have been able to earn larger or additional merit scholarships to better cover their college costs.
Should You Apply for Merit Scholarships?
Merit-based scholarships are a terrific way to offset the high costs of your college education. Researching and applying to these coveted awards will require diligence, organization, and motivation. But if you are an exemplary student or can demonstrate a distinctive set of skills, merit awards are one of your best opportunities for graduating debt-free from college.
We wish you the best of luck!
Full-ride scholarships are rare, but they do exist! Learn which schools offer awards that cover your entire college education.
Are you a stellar standardized test taker? Then you might qualify for guaranteed merit scholarships based on your SAT/ACT scores. Check out the eligibility requirements to see which programs you should apply for—or which scores to aim for on each exam.
Interested in boosting your cumulative GPA so you can qualify for merit scholarships? Check out our guide to getting good grades in high school.
Want to build the best possible college application?
We can help. PrepScholar Admissions is the world's best admissions consulting service. We combine world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've overseen thousands of students get into their top choice schools, from state colleges to the Ivy League.
We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit. We want to get you admitted to your dream schools.
Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in.
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Meilee Bridges earned her PhD and MA in English language and literature from the University of Michigan and graduated summa cum laude from the Honors English Program at Trinity University. A former professor turned professional writer and editor, she is dedicated to supporting the educational goals of students from all backgrounds.