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Merit Scholarships: 5 Steps to Getting a College Scholarship Aid

5 Steps to Get College Merit Aid

By Joanna Nesbit

When it comes to paying for college, there are two types of financial aid. The first is need-based aid, which is awarded based on a family’s income (the lower your income, the more you’ll get and vice-versa). The second type is non-need-based aid, which is also called merit or scholarship aid. This is not based on a family’s income.

Many middle- and upper-income families will not qualify for much—if any—need-based aid (though middle-income families may qualify for need aid at private colleges), so merit aid is about the only way to help lower the amount they’ll pay. Because let’s face it, paying full price for a college education is cost prohibitive for even upper-income families. Here are five steps to help your student get scholarship aid.

How to Get Merit Scholarships for College

“Merit aid is money that colleges use to attract students who meet the institution’s profile goals,” explains Cecilia Castellano, vice president of Student Strategic Planning at Bowling Green State University. Typically, these will be students whose grades and SAT/ACT scores fall at the higher range of a college’s accepted applicants. But merit aid also is awarded for less obvious attributes, such as leadership, community service, music, geographic diversity, and sports, Castellano says. At the end of the day, colleges want to improve their reputation and national ranking. One way to accomplish that goal is to use merit scholarships to attract exceptional students.

1. Be a Good Student

It helps to be a top scholar with an AP course load, standout SAT/ACT scores, and extracurricular activities. However, top students shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking they’ll get merit aid wherever they apply. Highly selective colleges don’t offer merit aid because accepted students are all standouts, and these colleges can charge for their brand name. They offer need-based awards only. Generally, students looking for merit money will do better applying to lesser-known colleges with higher acceptance rates.

B-students can also qualify for merit scholarships at the right colleges, especially if they stand out in other ways. “B-students will want to look for colleges where the average GPA is lower,” advises Paula Bishop, a private college financial aid advisor in Bellevue, Washington. Look for colleges where the student’s grades and test scores fall in the top third or quarter. Higher acceptance rates don’t mean lower-quality students; they simply lessen the pressure to be an academic superstar.

2. Research, Research, Research

To find colleges where your student will stand out, Bishop advises families to do their research, specifically using what’s called the Common Data Set. This is an annual survey in which colleges report all kinds of statistics, including enrollment, class size, and how much—and the types of—financial aid they award. Search for “[college name] + common data set” to find the information.

3. Check out DIYCollegeRankings.com

Another option: check out the website DIYCollegeRankings.com, which will show you how to use common data sets combined with data published annually by the National Center for Education Statistics to search for colleges offering merit aid. Don’t automatically nix a college for its sticker price. A lesser-known private college might offer a robust merit award. Generally, public schools don’t offer much merit aid, but that varies by state.

4. Don’t Forget to Check a College’s Website

Bishop recommends also searching for scholarship aid on college websites themselves. Some list scholarships clearly. Boise State University, for example, offers automatic scholarships to resident and non-resident students who meet specific criteria. Other schools are less transparent and trickier to predict, but you can use a college’s net price calculator (search the name of the college and net price calculator to find it) to input a variety of test scores and grades to see what pops up for merit aid. If a school’s calculator doesn’t ask for grades and scores, it likely doesn’t award merit aid. Before getting excited about a particular college’s merit opportunities, do consider whether the college is realistic for your student’s grades/scores.

5. Ask Around (Really)

And, finally, talk to your friends with older kids. Find out where they applied and whether they received merit aid. Word of mouth is valuable and can help uncover colleges you’ve never heard of.


Joanna Nesbit

Joanna Nesbit is a freelance writer based in the Pacific Northwest. She writes frequently about parenting and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Family Fun, Parenting, and elsewhere.