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Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

The Secret to Winning Merit Scholarships

There are a lot of myths when it comes to winning merit scholarships. As a result, students miss out on thousands of dollars of aid because they weren’t looking in the right places, or weren’t familiar enough with the rules.


In this post, we’ll go over these common misconceptions about merit-based aid, and outline smart strategies to securing the most generous merit scholarships possible. 


What Are Merit Scholarships?


Before we jump in, you may be wondering what merit scholarships are, and how they differ from need-based aid. Simply put, merit scholarships are scholarships that are awarded based on academic or extracurricular achievements, rather than financial need. They’re primarily offered by colleges themselves and outside organizations. 


Many schools award substantial scholarships based on GPA, SAT scores, community service, and other factors. Some even offer full-ride scholarships, covering tuition and other expenses, such as room and board, for all four years. 


Organizations that offer outside merit scholarships often target particular niches, such as certain demographics, skills, and disciplines. For example, the Regeneron Science Talent Search is a program that awards scholarships to high school students who conduct original scientific research. There are also awards based on talent in art, poetry, and many other categories, along with those targeted to minority students.


Common Misconceptions About Merit Scholarships


Applying to more scholarships will help you win more.


This isn’t exactly a myth — the more applications you complete will, to some extent, increase your odds of landing at least one scholarship. That said, you should be wary of only applying to scholarships with quick applications. While you can increase the volume of submissions this way, these scholarships tend to be much harder to win, given the fact that they get numerous submissions.


A better strategy may be to focus on scholarships that may have more involved applications that are well-suited to your strengths and interests. Likewise, local awards tend to be easier to secure than large, national scholarships, which draw applicants from all over the country.


Outside scholarships are more plentiful and easy to win.


There are plenty of external organizations that grant scholarships to students, but the fact is, colleges themselves actually grant $175 billion in scholarship money each year. That’s about 16 times more than the $11 billion in scholarship money granted by other organizations! Furthermore, 80% of external scholarships are less than $2,000, which won’t make much of a dent in most people’s tuition bills.


That means that students hoping to win merit scholarships should focus more on institutional opportunities than those from outside organizations. This will depend, however, on the schools you want to attend and the types of scholarships they award.


Top schools award merit aid.


Unfortunately, many selective institutions don’t offer merit aid. In fact, none of the members of the Ivy League do, and only about half of the top 20 national universities and liberal arts colleges offer merit scholarships. 


Still, even if a highly selective school offers merit scholarships, these awards are difficult to win — you’ll be competing against a huge pool of similarly talented students for a limited number of scholarships.


So if you’re applying to top colleges, don’t count on getting tons of merit aid from them. That said, these prestigious schools tend to offer extremely generous need-based financial aid that even upper middle class students may qualify for. Don’t count a school out just because it has a high sticker price and doesn’t offer merit aid.


Be sure to check your estimated cost using net price calculators. At CollegeVine, we actually have a free financial aid calculator that’s easy to use —  just input your financial info once, and see your personal cost of attendance at over 500 colleges!


Merit aid will stack on top of need-based aid.


Many families mistakenly assume that merit aid will reduce their out-of-pocket costs even further than their estimated net price. Don’t quite understand the jargon? Say that a net price calculator estimates that your family will need to pay $30k to attend XYZ College, after receiving $35k in need-based aid. But lucky you! Your profile qualified you for a $15k merit scholarship. So your aid should “stack” or add up to $50k ($35k + $15k), right? You would only then need to pay $15k for college!


Wrong! Unfortunately, many colleges will reevaluate your financial need if you receive an institutional merit award or outside scholarship, and reduce your need-based aid. This is a huge disappointment, and rightfully so — what’s the point of this merit aid, then? 


Well, most colleges do tend to reduce the “less desirable” portions of your need-based aid first, like loans and work-study. So, winning these scholarships can still be beneficial. They tend to be most beneficial for students who didn’t have financial need in the first place, though. 


We have a whole post on how outside scholarships impact your financial aid award, if you want to learn more.

Best Strategies for Getting Merit Scholarships


Apply to schools where your profile is especially strong.


At less selective colleges, your chances of winning scholarships are particularly high if you have a strong profile that aligns with the qualities the institution is seeking. Remember that a majority of scholarship money comes from colleges themselves, as opposed to outside organizations. Furthermore, the typical merit award from a college is much larger than the average $1,500-$2,000 from an external source.


To take advantage of this, add at least one or two safety schools to your list where you have a strong chance of winning substantial merit aid. 


Don’t rule out private schools.


It’s true that private institutions have higher sticker prices than public ones, but many of them also award generous merit aid. Based on CollegeVine’s data, the 50 colleges that award the most merit aid in the U.S. are all private. This list includes Hollins University, Clarke University, and Cardinal Stritch University, among others.


Apply early.


It’s a good idea to make a list of scholarship rules and deadlines to ensure you don’t miss any key dates. Some colleges require you to submit your application for admission by a certain date to be considered for merit aid. 


For example, the University of Richmond notes that all degree-seeking applicants are eligible for merit scholarship consideration, provided they submit their completed application by December 1. No separate merit application is required.


Purdue University, likewise, will automatically consider students who apply for admission by the November 1 Early Action deadline for university-wide merit scholarships. 


Meanwhile, some schools require separate applications or materials for scholarship consideration. Washington University in St. Louis, for example, offers different types of merit scholarships, some of which require a separate application and others of which do not. The Entrepreneurial Scholars Program is one that does, and is open to all undergraduate applicants to any division. As part of the application, students must submit a detailed description of a high school project that “reflects creativity, energy, and an entrepreneurial spirit.”


These requirements can be time-intensive and require extra essays, so be sure to plan ahead. 


Looking for advice on how to maximize your chances of winning top scholarships? Want to know your odds of getting into your top choice school? Sign up for a free CollegeVine account for tips and real information about the college admissions process.

Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.