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Home Scholarships College Scholarships What is a Merit Scholarship

What is a Merit Scholarship?

Merit aid is money that is given based on academic, athletic, artistic, or other special interest or ability, without looking at financial need. Qualifications such as test scores, community involvement, or just enrolling in a university can enable you to receive this type of gift-aid that is not need-based. Merit scholarships also allow schools to attract students who may otherwise not be interested in their university by making the cost of attendance a little more financially manageable.

Merit scholarships generally award you for the work you have done during your time in high school. Whether it be focused on grades, standardized test scores, or your involvement in the community or school, merit scholarships allow you to receive money for school that does not take your family finances into consideration. This non-need type of gift-aid can be used by schools to attract students by making the cost of attendance more financially feasible. 

Paying for College

With the rising costs of attending a college, university, or trade school, even otherwise financially stable students and families may not have the ability to cover the full cost of attendance. Federal government need-based financial aid focuses on those with the greatest demonstrated need and others left in the middle are often not able to cover all the necessary costs. 

Using a tool like the School Snapshot can help by showing the average annual cost of attendance for your school of choice. Being armed with the right information of how much you can expect to pay can give you a strong starting place for knowing how much you’re going to need to pay for school.  Federal gift aid is typically need-based or contingent upon a particular type of service and is generally only offered to undergraduate students. If you want to keep your loan debt to a minimum, but are only offered federal student loans, that doesn’t mean that attending college is out of the question; there are still plenty of options to explore. 

Academic Merit Scholarships

The most common type of merit aid rewards academic prowess and requires a specific GPA or ACT/SAT score. Universities and colleges offer merit-based aid upon acceptance into their schools or specific programs. To help offset the cost of attendance, contact the financial aid office or your specific program and ask about merit-based scholarships. 

Some schools will auto-enroll you in their merit programs upon acceptance to the school or program. Other merit programs may require an application. For those schools that require an application, make sure to turn in your application as early as possible to be sure you are considered for an award before all the scholarships are awarded. 

If you are awarded a merit-based scholarship from your school freshman year, you may want to ask a few questions. For example, is the scholarship renewable for future years? If not, what options do you have to help pay for future years and terms. Your financial aid office may be able to explain the terms of other merit-based scholarships offered to students beyond their first year. Renewing merit scholarships may also require a certain GPA. It is better to learn that information now so you can adequately prepare for the future. 

National Merit®  Scholarship

One of the most well-known merit scholarships is the National Merit Scholarship. This privately financed, not-for-profit organization operates without government assistance. They want to recognize and honor students attending high school in the United States, District of Columbia, or U.S. commonwealths and territory, or who meet the citizenship requirements for student attending high school outside the United States who respect learning and are exceptionally talented. Brilliant students are supported from individuals and organizations who desire to sponsor students in pursuing excellence at all academic levels. 

To apply for the National Merit Scholarship, remember that you will need to take the PSAT/NMSQT®. Depending on your situation, you will likely take this your third year; however, there could be different requirements if you are graduating early, are dual enrolled in high school and college, or if you are planning to complete grades 9 through 12 in five years. The National Merit Scholarship does have methods for students to enter if they are unable to take the PSAT due to extenuating circumstances. National Merit Scholarship finalists must be currently enrolled as a high school student (traditional or homeschooled), who is progressing toward high school completion or graduation.

In September, high scorers will be notified if they have qualified as either Commended Students or Semifinalists. Semifinalists must move on to Finalist standing by meeting all necessary requirements. Competition finalists are eligible for the three different types of National Merit Scholarships available. 

If you are not a Semifinalist don’t despair, if you receive a Letter of Commendation you could be eligible for corporate-sponsored scholarships as well as college-sponsored merit scholarships. There are three kinds of National Merit Scholarships awarded:

National Merit® $2,500 Scholarship

a. All Finalists contend for the $2,500 one-time scholarship that is awarded based on state-representation. A committee of high school counselors and college admission officers choose winners, regardless of family finances, choice of college, major, or desired career. This award has not kept up with the inflating cost of college but is extremely prestigious nonetheless.

Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards

b. Merit Scholarships are sponsored by corporations who give awards to employee’s/member’s children, to residents of a community where the company operates, or for winners with career paths the sponsor desires to spur. These scholarships may be renewable during four years of undergraduate study or only awarded once. The amount of these awards may vary. 

College-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards

c. The officials from sponsored colleges choose to award winners from the list of Merit Scholarship Finalists who have been accepted and have informed the sponsor college or university this college is their first choice by the published deadlines. These scholarships are renewable for up to four years of undergrad study. 

Resources to Locate Merit Scholarships

Your local community may have access to lesser-known merit scholarships. Check with your high school’s counseling office as well as any surrounding high schools for college and scholarship boards sharing relevant and even obscure merit scholarships. 

You can also use a free scholarship match tool, like, to help you get matched to and track relevant merit scholarships based on your year in high school, GPA, state of residence, gender, and ethnic heritage. All this information can be stored in one convenient place and help keep you organized on your quest for financial assistance. 

Who Can Apply for Merit Scholarships?

Merit scholarships are not always all about grades and test scores, they are also used to award students in any area that schools and communities deem important. This might be school involvement, demonstrated leadership abilities, and other hobbies and interests that are often the basis of numerous merit scholarships. 

Be in the Know with Merit Scholarships

When applying for and receiving merit scholarships, make sure you read the fine print on the applications and understand the requirements. Often merit scholarships are good for one academic year or term and can sometimes be renewed based on maintaining certain eligibility. 

How to Apply for Merit Scholarships

1.      Have an above average GPA with strong ACT/SAT scores. When it comes to college applicants, the average GPA is between 3.5 and 4.0 on a 4.0 grade scale. Be diligent in your scholastic endeavors and your grades will reward you. 

2.      Get organized by keeping transcripts, letters of recommendation, and other important records together. You may also be asked to write a clear and concise essay about your goals or experience. By keeping all your resumes, certificates, and other artifacts of accomplishments together, you will curate a file of evidence for scholarship committees. 

3.      As you continue in your athletic, artistic, academic, or volunteer efforts, remember to continually work to become better. Your consistent and steady effort of achieving goals will show scholarship committees your dedication to your craft and ability to tackle and overcome hurdles. Meet with mentors, teachers, advisors, coaches, and guidance counselors on a regular basis to ensure you stay on track for accomplishing your goals. This consistent check-in helps you maintain accountability and is a great network for possible future references. 

4.      When it comes to merit scholarships, the standardized test scores of the ACT/SAT hold great sway. Plan to study and prepare for these tests. This will not only keep the test day jitters at bay, but will ensure you are prepared for the nuances of the test. You may also want to take the test more than once to get the best outcome possible.

5.      You may not be the perfect fit for every merit scholarship, and that is okay! Use the resources such as StudentScholarshipSearch to find the perfect scholarships for you and your circumstances. This tool, for example, allows you to be matched with scholarships and can help save you time and effort in finding the right merit scholarships for you. With your list, apply to all the scholarships identified with completed applications and documents requested by the required due date. 

Good luck!
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