How to ease the strain with a merit scholarship

  • Brennan Barnard

The College Guy
Published: 11/30/2020 5:31:13 PM

Question: How do I increase my chances of getting merit scholarships to help pay for college?

Answer: It is that time of year when everyone is shopping for a deal, and why should college be any different? Ideally, the best way to improve your odds of earning a scholarship is to be wicked smart or amazingly talented! If only it were that straightforward – the reality is much more nuanced. First, let’s define what we are talking about. Merit scholarships usually refer to financial aid that is not based on a student’s demonstrated need. In contrast, these financial awards – in the purest form – represent assistance that is offered to an admitted applicant as a result of some strength, talent, or contribution that they bring to a campus community. Most commonly merit scholarships are granted for academic achievement, but can also recognize excellence in the arts, service, leadership, and other areas. 

Essentially, when merit aid is provided to a student, their tuition at the college is discounted by a set amount each year. The notion of “merit” has become somewhat obscure in admission, as more and more colleges use this discounting approach as a standard enrollment practice (the national average for tuition discounting is now over 50%). To fill a class, some schools offer discounts to the majority of their applicants and call them merit scholarships. That said, there is a small group of colleges and universities that do not offer merit scholarships at all – generally the most selective in the country, which meet full need. Merit aid is used to entice students to enroll and these highly selective institutions do not need to offer the same financial incentives to land top applicants.

Now, back to your question. Your best approach to receive merit scholarships is to widen your application list to schools where your academic achievement is above the profile of their average admitted student. In other words, if you have a 4.0 GPA and are applying to a school with an average GPA of 3.5, they are more likely to try to attract you with merit money. If you have demonstrated financial need, the scholarships will be in addition to the need-based aid you are offered. If you can afford the full tuition, merit scholarships will be a welcome break on the total cost of attendance. Either way, always read the fine print. Schools have different policies, and sometimes merit scholarships are contingent on maintaining a certain GPA in college or other requirements. Usually, students do not have to apply for institutional merit scholarships, but rather are identified as qualified applicants during admission review. Some colleges do have additional scholarships that require separate applications, so check each financial aid website at the schools to which you are applying. 

Check with your school counseling office to learn about other local and national scholarships that are not tied to specific colleges. There are also scholarship search tools online like and The New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation (NHHEAF) has additional resources on their website: Be wary of anyone who asks you to pay them fees to find you merit scholarships because with some initiative and follow-through you can identify opportunities for aid without having to invest. After all, you wouldn’t pay someone to find you holiday deals and college should not be any different. Happy shopping.

Do you have a question about college admission, the impact of the pandemic, and applications? Submit them to Brennan Barnard is the Director of College Counseling and Outreach at The Derryfield School and the College Admission Program Advisor at The Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is co-author of the book, “The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.”

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