Guide To Merit Scholarships And Financial Aid

Scholarships are a great way to make college more affordable. Here, we outline what you need to know about merit scholarships.

Updated April 12, 2023

Guide To Merit Scholarships And Financial Aid is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Scholarships make one of the best funding sources, allowing students to lower costs and graduate with less debt. Merit-based assistance provides funding no matter a student's need, making these scholarships accessible to many learners. U.S. students receive more than $22 billion in merit-based scholarships each year. On average, merit-based scholarships award about $5,000 per student.

Our merit-based assistance guide highlights scholarship qualifications, aid types, and strategies to increase your chance of getting merit-based scholarships.

What Is a Merit Scholarship?

Scholarship foundations, private companies, nonprofit organizations, and individual colleges all offer merit-based scholarships. Some awards cover just tuition, while others apply to other college costs, including textbooks and living expenses.

People often misunderstand merit-based scholarships, thinking they only go to straight-A students and other high achievers. In fact, the number of available scholarships means many students can receive merit-based aid. reports over 40% of merit-based scholarships going to students with a GPA below 3.5. Deciding on the most reasonable scholarships to apply for can increase students' chances of getting funding.

What Types of Merit-Based Scholarships Are Awarded?

Students apply for different types of merit-based scholarships and merit-based assistance. Academics, athletic performance, extracurricular activities, and artistic skill all help students get scholarship offers. Some scholarships serve students of specific backgrounds. This list highlights some of the major scholarship categories.

  1. 1

    National Merit

    The National Merit Scholarship Competition awards financial aid to high school students based on PSAT scores. Students must take the test by junior year of high school to qualify. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation then selects scholarship recipients based on test scores and other academic qualifications.
  2. 2


    Academic merit-based scholarships award aid for academic excellence. These scholarships typically require a minimum GPA and other academic qualifications. While most scholarships call for a high GPA, many consider academics as just one part of a student's application.
  3. 3


    Athletic merit-based scholarships consider students' athletic abilities in sports or other skills. Applicants experience strong competition, especially for NCAA Division I, which offers the highest level of athletic competition. Colleges may recruit skilled athletes by offering scholarships. Students can contact coaches to demonstrate their athletic skills.
  4. 4

    Special Interest

    Special interest scholarships award students of specific backgrounds or academic and professional interests. The scholarships' criteria vary. Some serve applicants of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. Others serve applicants pursuing specific degrees or career paths. These scholarships typically maintain specific academic criteria as well.
  5. 5


    Artistic scholarships serve students demonstrating exceptional creativity or proficiency in the arts. Typical artistic disciplines awarded include visual arts, music, writing, and performing arts. Some scholarships serve specific subdisciplines, while others serve art students in general. Applicants for arts scholarships submit a selection of their work.

How Do I Qualify for a Merit Scholarship?

Merit-based scholarships typically consider an applicant's GPA, test scores, and other academic criteria. However, these factors often serve as basic qualifiers to narrow the applicant pool. Strong grades and test scores alone may not secure the most prestigious scholarships. Many application committees also consider extracurriculars, community service, and essays.

When applying for merit-based scholarships, students should research carefully and focus on awards where they meet all qualifications.

How Can I Apply for Merit Scholarships?

All merit-based scholarships maintain their own application requirements, typically found online. Read all application instructions carefully and pay attention to deadlines.

In general, scholarships may ask applicants to submit personal information and high school or college grades. More selective scholarships may require additional application materials. Common supplements include personal statements, proof of community service, and recommendation letters from teachers.

What Merit Scholarships Can I Apply For?

Hundreds of different organizations, businesses, and foundations offer scholarships each year. Finding available awards can overwhelm students, but online scholarship databases make it easier. Popular sites that list scholarships include, Fastweb, and Cappex.

Many colleges offer their own scholarship programs, providing partial or even full tuition coverage. Less selective colleges may offer generous scholarships in order to attract top students. More selective schools also offer scholarships, though students usually face much stronger competition for them.

How Many Merit Scholarships Can I Get?

While students can theoretically earn unlimited scholarships, winning significant merit-based assistance could impact other financial aid offers. Known as financial aid displacement, colleges reduce aid offers to students because of their other scholarships.

Some private scholarship programs work with recipients to reduce financial aid displacement, but not all schools do this. Students should ask college financial aid offices if they practice either full or partial award displacement.

How to Increase Your Chances of Obtaining Merit-Based Scholarships

Students face serious competition when applying for many merit-based scholarships. Planning and preparation helps applicants increase their chances of getting merit-based assistance. Keeping up good grades, doing extracurriculars, targeting the right schools, and staying organized all help students earn scholarships.

  • Apply Early

    Researching and applying to scholarships takes time. Before applying, students should decide on a list of scholarships and note all their deadlines. Most scholarships maintain strict deadlines, and applications received after the cutoff date do not receive consideration. Starting research early helps students identify the best scholarship opportunities.
  • Excel in the Classroom

    Many merit-based scholarships require a strong GPA and test scores. Awards often require a 3.0 GPA, and elite scholarships often call for a 3.5 GPA. Students hoping to get scholarships should work hard to maintain a strong high school GPA.
  • Get Active Outside of the Classroom

    Most scholarships require a strong GPA, but extracurricular activities help distinguish students from other applicants. Applicants for top scholarships are often involved in many activities outside of school. Sports, music, student government, and community service strengthen candidates' applications.
  • Target the Right Schools

    Applying for scholarships involves recognizing which awards and schools offer the best chance for success. Students should research what type and amount of financial aid different schools offer. Additionally, applicants should explore different scholarships and find awards that suit their background, skills, and academic interests.

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