The Basics Of Merit Scholarships

In a perfect world, your hard-working high school student has achieved good grades and earned high scores on all of the standardized tests. This has put him or her in line to receive a tidy sum of money by way of a merit scholarship, and your college tuition worries are over.

We hate to burst your bubble, but in the real world it’s not that simple. Unless you do your research and understand how merit scholarships are awarded (and which colleges are most likely to offer them), you’ll be in for a big surprise when the time comes to start thinking about paying for college.

The optimum time to start searching for colleges, researching merit scholarships, and determining what you can and cannot afford is BEFORE your student applies. By reviewing cost, financial aid, and merit scholarships, you can familiarize yourself with schools that are more likely to be generous with their money.

What are Merit Scholarships?

These are scholarships that are not awarded as a result of financial need, but are based on “merit.” In addition to test scores and GPA, merit scholarships can also recognize leadership skills, service, athletic ability, and talent in music or the arts. Aside from merit scholarships that are awarded by individual schools, there are also private merit scholarships that often come from corporations, private businesses, local organizations, and nonprofits. The value of many of these awards tends to be smaller dollar amounts that are not renewable — around $2,000 on average — and the competition for them is quite high, so we will only be discussing school merit scholarships here.

School Merit Scholarship

Colleges themselves are the biggest source of merit scholarships. These scholarships, also referred to as institutional scholarships, are essentially tuition discounts that are awarded by schools. At some schools, students are automatically considered for merit scholarships, and the requirements are even posted on the school’s website. At other schools, and especially for those seeking talent-based merit aid, students may need to apply, audition, and/or compete, and must also be aware of the school’s deadlines for being considered, which may be earlier than regular admissions deadlines.

A common misconception is that only the top students will be considered for merit scholarships, but in reality a large percentage of students who are not “A” students in high school can still receive these awards (In many cases, though, a GPA above the school’s mid-50 percentile can be a plus). It all depends upon the school: those schools that are more competitive will require higher stats. Focusing on your student’s merit “hook,” and anything that can make him or her stand out, is extremely beneficial.

How to Find Merit Scholarships

Some colleges award merit scholarships that are vaguely described, or may not be listed on their websites at all. These are known as “unlisted.” To find schools with these types of awards, researching schools via various types of data is essential. Key data tools such as IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) and Common Data Set provide much-needed information about individual schools, including the Average Net Price and the Average Merit Award. The secret is knowing what to look for, where to look, and how to find this type of information;  it is not all readily available, and cannot always be found in the same place. To learn more about where to find this type of data, you can read Using Data to Research Merit Scholarships.

How Do Students Receive Their Money?

The amount is deposited directly into the student’s account, and usually must be used for billed expenses. Full details for scholarships can often be found on a school’s website. Sometimes a school or state award only applies to the freshman year. Keep that in mind as you prepare to pay for college – you may find that the freshman year has the most funding available, and money decreases over time. This is something to ask if and when your student is offered a merit scholarship: find out how many years the scholarship is for. Unfortunately, as tuition increases each year, scholarships do not always increase as well.

While putting efforts towards doing well on the ACT or SAT can have financial rewards in the form of merit scholarships, families should prepare themselves with research on various colleges’ financial aid policies. Some schools only grant needs based aid, while others grant both needs and merit based aid; knowing which schools do what will be important for your college search process. Noting how many students receive aid, the average dollar amount given, the average net price of the school, and more, can help identify colleges that are most likely to provide merit scholarship money.

Check out Road2College for more information on college admissions and financing.