Guide to Merit Scholarships in 2023

by Katie Davis | Last Updated: March 8, 2023
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Key Takeaways

Table of Contents

What are Merit Scholarships?

Okay, so you have submitted your college application. The wait to hear back from the schools can seem endless, and the odds are good that you feel a bit like you have been sitting on your hands. This period of seemingly endless limbo is great for one thing, though: applying for scholarships

For those considering attending college, the expense can be a daunting prospect. The price tag on a good secondary education is pretty hefty. Don’t despair, though. The expense of college alone should not discourage you from applying to and attending your dream school. 

There is good news for students who want to attend college and have the grades it takes to get into a great school. Merit scholarships exist as a way to encourage high achievement and reward students for their hard work. If you’re not quite sure if you should apply for scholarships in the first place, check out this article on why you should apply for scholarships in the first place

Not only do scholarships unlock unique opportunities and financial relief, but they often come with a community, connections, and a network of new contacts who are eager to help you begin your college career, and even your professional career beyond that.

One final note before we dive more deeply into the world of scholarships: Once you win those scholarships, the hard work you put into your applications will be well worth it. We’ll break down what some of the best colleges for merit aid are looking for, and where else you can search for other merit-based scholarships. Let’s get into it. 

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What Are the Different Types of Merit Scholarships?

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Merit Scholarships From Colleges, Also Known as Tuition Discounting or Merit Aid

Merit scholarships exist for students who excel in academics or another specialized area. These scholarships tend to be relatively easy to find, and they can often be accessed directly from the colleges themselves. School-specific merit scholarships can serve to incentivize the top students to enroll. Not all merit scholarships are entirely focused on academics, though. 

Other types of merit scholarships involve achievements in academic, leadership, military, community service, and other areas. These scholarships are great for students who may or may not have the top grades in the school, but instead have dedicated their time and efforts to others in their community or by pushing their limits by achieving athletic feats. 

This is a fantastic opportunity for students who excelled in sports throughout their time in school but who do not wish to pursue sports at the collegiate level. Those interested in attending a military academy who have shown promise in their JROTC program throughout high school are great candidates for military merit scholarships. This is when great recommendation letters can prove helpful.

What Are National Merit Scholarships?

National Merit Scholarships are awarded to a select group of students among the top 1% of PSAT scores. The great thing about this scholarship is that applicants who are awarded this scholarship receive $2,500 toward their freshman year tuition at any school they want. The application process for becoming a National Merit Scholar is rigorous, and the winners come only from the top 1% of scorers who took the PSAT during their junior year of high school. Applicants must be citizens of the United States.

The application process for becoming a National Merit Scholar is intensive, but the reward is worth it. The top 50,000 PSAT scorers are notified the spring of their Junior year. From those selected to be Program Recognition Students, semifinalists are chosen from each state. Of the students chosen, another two thirds are weeded out. In February of the applicants’ senior year, 15,000 finalists are selected. Ultimately, around 7,500 students are named National Merit Scholars. These students then have the $2,500 applied to their first year of college tuition.

It should also be noted that colleges love to see that students are candidates to be National Merit Scholars. If you decide to pursue this route and mention it on your application, the best colleges for merit aid will likely keep your application near the top. This is always a good thing. 

Automatic Merit Scholarships

Automatic merit scholarships are also super handy for students who excelled academically in high school. Unlike National Merit Scholarships, automatic merit scholarships are given to students who meet certain criteria on a school-by-school basis. For example, students may be given an automatic merit scholarship if they have above a certain ACT or SAT score and meet a certain GPA threshold. On the other hand, sometimes automatic merit scholarships only require that students meet one of those criteria, but that might mean that they must have a higher GPA. 

The most important thing to note about automatic merit scholarships is that they vary from school to school, so it is important to know what the schools you are applying to are looking for when they award automatic merit scholarships. Much of the time, students don’t even need to apply for this type of scholarship. Pretty neat, right? 

Competitive College Merit Scholarships

Another type of scholarship to consider is competitive college merit scholarships. As their name indicates, these scholarships are competitive in nature. Essentially, these are pretty much just merit scholarships that aren’t automatically applied, or awarded to everyone based on the same merit. Competitive college merit scholarships are available at some of the best colleges for merit aid, and they typically take into consideration class rank, GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and overall strength of application. This is one of the scholarships that requires extra attention to details, and researching what your specific college wants is a step you don’t want to skip. 

Performing Arts or Talent Scholarships

Performing Arts or Talent Scholarships are perfect for students who excel in those areas. Students who dance or consider themselves artists or musicians can submit portfolios and audition tapes to schools as part of their application for these scholarships. Sometimes schools may have in-person auditions for these scholarships. This is a great way to cut down the cost of college tuition if you excel academically and artistically. 

How to Apply for a Merit Scholarship

Do not get overwhelmed. This process may seem intimidating, but you can break it down into manageable steps. One great rule of advice to follow when applying for these scholarships is that you should make a priority list. One way to do this is by creating a timeline of when you need to have different parts of your application turned in by. Being organized is a great way to set yourself up for success. You probably already know that, though, as the exceptional student that you are. This will help you stay on track throughout the application process. 

Before you put together your application, make sure that you meet all eligibility requirements; read the details listed in the descriptions and scholarship applications carefully. Your application will be tossed aside very quickly if you fail to meet their most basic criteria.

The best colleges for merit aid often have information pertaining to the application process listed on their website, or even in their application portal. Applying for a merit scholarship is actually a pretty easy process. Typically, interested students apply for school-specific merit scholarships while they are applying for the school itself. Sometimes, the application for scholarships comes after the college application has been submitted. 

In your scholarship applications, make sure that you take the time to point out what you consider to be your best attributes, your most impressive accomplishments, and anything else that sets you apart from the pool of applicants (in a good way). When you have the chance to brag about yourself, do so in a humble (but confident) way. 

Be sure that you include only accurate and honest information in your application. This goes for both college admissions applications and applications for merit scholarships. There are few things worse than a college catching you in a lie before you even walk through the front gates. By being honest and upfront, you allow the college to give you a scholarship because they truly believe in you and feel that you have something commendable to bring to the table of secondary education. Put your best foot forward, and do it right. You now have all the tools you need! Go forth and win those scholarships.

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Tips for finding Private Scholarships

Private scholarships are typically based on merit, background, talent, or some combination of the three. Many of these scholarships are available for students with special needs, minority students, first-generation college students, and students from low-income backgrounds. 

Some of the best colleges for merit aid offer private scholarships that are college specific to recognize the hard work and dedication of the students applying for them. In addition to looking for these scholarships on your school’s website, there are a few other places they can be found. Scholarships.com is a great place to look for private scholarships. Another helpful website is Donotpay.com, which breaks down private scholarships in particular. They also indicate specific people these scholarships are intended to benefit. 

A few private scholarships to look into include the Coca-Cola Scholars Program, Society of Women Engineers Scholarships, the Dell Scholars Program, Google Scholarships, and The Gates Scholarship. 

Full-Ride vs. Partial-Ride

If you’ve been wondering how to pay for college, the odds are that you have come across the terms full-ride and partial-ride. The best colleges for merit aid offer both full-ride and partial-ride scholarships. Let’s break down what each of those terms mean. 

On the most basic level, full-ride scholarships cover all of tuition, plus fees and other incidentals that inevitably pop up as you apply to school. Still helpful but less inclusive, partial ride scholarships tend to cover only certain portions of the cost of education. Either way, scholarships can take a heavy load off your shoulders, and they play a massive role in making college more affordable and accessible. 

Perhaps most importantly, scholarships can make a difference in terms of the loans you’ll have to take out and pay back later (with interest attached). The more scholarships you accrue, whether they are full-ride or partial ride, the better. 

Which Schools Offer the Best Scholarships

You’re probably wondering which schools offer the best scholarships out there. You want to get the best bang for your buck, right? Some of the best colleges for merit aid and scholarships include those with higher tuition. This means that you have the chance to receive an unparalleled private school education with a price tag more along the lines of a public school. On the other hand, if you play your cards right, scholarships can totally eliminate your tuition altogether. Keep in mind that public schools often offer massive scholarships for those with high academic achievements. No matter whether you want to attend a private or public college, your merits and accomplishments can help make the experience much more affordable.

Public Schools With the Best Merit Scholarships

Public schools are typically much more affordable than private schools. While this is true, it is important to note that public schools still have fantastic options when it comes to merit-based aid. For example,The University of Texas at Austin, Virginia Tech, Ohio State University, and University of Georgia are among some of the public best colleges for merit aid. 

Private Schools With the Best Merit Scholarships

Private schools are notorious for being much more expensive than public schools. One way to offset this is by looking into some of the private best colleges for merit aid. Some of the best colleges for merit aid include Duke University, Vanderbilt University, University of Southern California, University of Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis, and Emory University. 

Conclusion + Next Steps

Now that you’ve got the basics of merit scholarships and aid, we have a comprehensive, and best of all, free 70+ page guide of colleges in the US that provide the best merit scholarships. Don’t wait – beat the other kids to the race and download your free copy today. 

If you have the grades, scores, or talents, these colleges have designed these scholarships just for you. These scholarships indicate that the schools offering them value and admire these skills. This is a great thing. Let the skills, abilities, and knowledge that you have set you apart from the rest of the pack – and reap the rewards while you are at it.

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Katie Davis graduated from high school in May of 2016. That fall, she moved to College Station, Texas, where she began her college career at Texas A&M University. She graduated in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. A proud Aggie, Katie still lives in Texas with her husband and two dogs. She hopes that through her writing on Stand Out College Prep, she can help to simplify the exciting (and sometimes stressful) process of applying to colleges.