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How to Maximize Your Child’s Merit Aid Eligibility

Funding a college education can be a challenge for many families. With college costs on the rise, finding resources to help finance a four-year degree is increasingly important. According to CNN, in 2016 the average family paid over $100,000 for a four-year degree from a private university, and that’s after receiving financial aid.


It comes as no surprise that families are applying for financial aid in increasing numbers. As reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, by 2016 over 85% of college applicants were applying for financial aid, and while financial aid is an invaluable resource, it rarely covers all college costs. Luckily, there are some other available options for funding the remainder.


Merit aid can be a critical piece of the college funding puzzle, but for many families, it remains a bit mysterious too. Sometimes, merit aid is hard to locate or comes with stringent requirements. With some forward planning, though, you and your student can ensure that he or she is poised and ready to jump at any merit aid possibilities. To learn more about maximizing your child’s eligibility for merit aid, don’t miss this post.

What Types of Aid Are Available for College?

First, it’s important to understand exactly what merit aid is and exactly what it is not. In order to do that, it’s helpful to take a look at college aid overall.


Merit aid is essentially exactly what its name implies—it is college aid that is awarded based on a student’s merit, or achievements. Sometimes merit aid is awarded for academic pursuits and other times it is awarded for extracurriculars. While some merit aid weighs financial need when considering applicants, merit aid that is entirely merit-based will be need-blind.


Financial aid grants or loans that are awarded from federal, state, local, or institutional sources are based on family income as reflected on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Merit aid, also often referred to as a scholarship, differs from financial aid because it is based on achievement, not on family income. Though students can rarely have an impact on their family’s income, they can most certainly affect their own achievements and their eligibility for merit aid.

How to Get Merit Aid: Know Where to Look

Sometimes the hardest part of securing merit aid is knowing where to look. There are literally thousands and thousands of scholarships out there, but locating the ones that are just the right fit for you and your family can be difficult. Some scholarships are high profile national awards with large, competitive applicant pools. Others are smaller awards which are either local or offered in niche areas.


The National Merit Scholarship Program is one of the largest sources of merit aid in the country. Your student can qualify for this program simply by taking the PSAT as a high school junior and checking the box to be considered for the program. Merit scholarships are awarded to high scorers who advance through later rounds of the competition through additional application materials. Other students are also eligible for awards from the National Hispanic Recognition Program,corporations or individual colleges. To learn more about the program, check out our post How to Qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program.


Many merit scholarships are awarded directly by colleges or universities. In this case, applicants are usually considered based on their college applications to those schools and no additional application materials are needed. Sometimes, though, in order to be considered for a merit award, applicants will need to submit their applications by an earlier deadline or submit a supplemental essay. Be sure to research the possibilities available at the colleges on your student’s college list so that you’re aware of any specific requirements. It would be a shame to be disqualified simply for having missed an early deadline. 

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Other merit awards come from large corporations. These generally require a separate application, essay, or other type of submission. If your child has a niche skill, like video editing or graphic art, you might be able to find a scholarship for it through a simple web query. The same is true of the aspects of your child’s personality or background that make him or her unique. Some scholarships are open only to students of a particular culture or heritage, while others are open to specific gender identities. If your child’s identity is part of what makes him or her a unique and amazing individual, you can look into scholarships that specifically recognize these qualities.


Local organizations can be another source of merit aid. Local chapters of the Elks Club or Rotary Club, or even your local PTA may have annual scholarships that they award. Often your student’s guidance counselor will be able to point you towards these resources if they aren’t already on your radar.

How to Get Merit Aid: Optimizing Your Student’s Profile

Many merit awards come with strict eligibility requirements. The most common of these are minimum SAT/ACT scores or a minimum GPA. The number one way that your student can maximize his or her chance at an academic merit award is by ensuring that his or her SAT/ACT scores and GPA are as high as possible. For help raising SAT/ACT scores, check out our extensive library of standardized test resources.


Many merit awards are specific to certain areas of achievement. These could be academic areas like the STEM fields, or extracurricular areas like the arts. In either case, if your student plans to apply for an award in a specialized area, he or she will need to make sure that his or her application highlights this area of speciality. There should be a history of achievement documented not just through participation, but through increased responsibility, formal recognition or honors. Your student’s achievements in these fields should be quantifiable in some way. If he or she has been committed to a service project, your student should track the number of hours dedicated or the number of people served. Simply stating participation over a number of months or years will not be enough.

How Can My Student Improve His or Her Profile?

Our best advice is to start planning your student’s profile early on in his or her high school career. Keep a list of accomplishments and honors, and look for patterns in achievement. Once there are some patterns established, find ways to expand on these by looking for other opportunities both in and out of the classroom. If your student joins the robotics club and wins an award in the school science fair, why not enroll them in a summer STEM program or encourage them to self-study for the Physics AP? Identify areas of strength and build upon them to optimize your teen’s applicant profile.


If you are down to the wire and looking for some last minute tips to improve your student’s profile, our advice is to choose your hook wisely. Take an objective look at your student’s areas of achievements and recognize the areas of his or her work that truly shine and make him or her unique. Also look closely for a common thread through his or her achievements. For example, a student who volunteers in elementary classrooms, has won a few fine art awards, and was recognized formally during 11th grade for his or her spirit of generosity might be the perfect candidate for an award for future art educators or a similar award.


For more information about merit aid, don’t miss these CollegeVine posts:



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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.