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4 Steps to Merit Aid Scholarships For High School Students

If you’ve checked out college tuition fees lately, you’ve probably seen some pretty eye-popping price tags. In fact, over the past decade, published tuition and fee prices have increased by 47%, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO). So when it comes time to look at colleges, you may be tempted to skip over some that you think are out of reach financially. But don’t be too hasty—first do some checking to learn if merit aid is an option.

Merit Aid Scholarships Can Bridge the Tuition Gap

Students like Marissa Boos, a sophomore at Bowling Green State University, are finding that merit-aid scholarships can go a long way in bridging the gap. “I was already considering BGSU based on its welcoming environment, but I became even more interested once I realized how affordable it would be with the merit scholarship,” she says.

That’s why college-bound families shouldn’t let list prices deter them, says Sabrina Manville, co-founder and head of advising at Edmit, which helps families make wise financial choices regarding college. “Schools routinely offer merit scholarships to attract great students who will add diversity and new perspectives to the class, as well as be academically strong,” she says.

The Quest for Merit Aid

If you thought scholarships were reserved for top-tier athletes or brainy mathletes, you might be pleasantly surprised at how much merit aid may be available. A lot of advice on how to look for scholarships focuses on outside organizations, but you are likely to discover that the best offers come from the institution itself.

Your quest for merit aid scholarships should begin freshman year of high school, emphasizes Brandi Barhite, BGSU’s director of enrollment communications. Her institution awards about $25 million in merit aid to students annually.

4 Tips for Getting Merit Aid:

Barhite offers these tips to help students set themselves up for success when looking for scholarships.

1. Grades matter from the very start.

It’s vital to realize your high school GPA starts the first day of freshman year, Barhite says. “If you let it dip, you likely cannot make up much ground later on, simply because there are not enough classes left to offset it.”

2. Have a plan for your standardized testing.

Boos says she took the ACT more than once to receive the best score possible, as she knew that would impact her offer. Some schools make it easy to know the mark to shoot for. For example, BGSU has an academic scholarship calculator that shows how much money you will receive based on your results. “It can be really motivating for students to see how much more money they might get if they came up a point or two,” Barhite says.

3. Being well-rounded isn’t what you think it means.

Many students believe this means joining every club or activity, but it’s not actually what colleges are looking for. This is good news if your teen is stressed about being spread too thin. Universities are looking for a well-rounded cohort, so they prefer to see that you immersed yourself in a few important activities. Boos, for example, focused on service, participating in volunteer groups such as the National Honor Society and Students in Action.

4. Choose your school targets wisely.

Your best opportunity for merit aid scholarships comes from focusing on a school that wants you, Manville says. “Students looking for scholarships should think about applying to schools where they will be stronger applicants; that is, where their test scores and GPA are on the high end of the school’s range,” she says. Many schools are also seeking regional diversity and diversity of interests, such as distinctive hobbies or extracurricular activities—and maybe that means you.

And while the most selective schools grab headlines for their miniscule acceptance rates, they are not the norm. “Concerns about ‘elite’ schools are affecting a tiny fraction of families,” Manville notes. “Find the school that will be generous with a student like you rather than feeling that it’s a losing battle.” That’s a winning strategy.

Cathie Ericson

Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Read more about Cathie at cathieericsonwriter.com.