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What Are Need-Based vs. Merit-Based Scholarships?

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Alexander Oddo in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


What’s Covered:


College scholarships are generally broken down into two types: need-based scholarships and merit-based scholarships. This post will explain the difference between the two so you can go into your financial aid process more confidently!


What Are Need-Based Scholarships?


Need-based scholarships are awarded to students based on their financial means. Often, they are awarded automatically as a part of a financial aid package.


When a student applies to college, they submit something called the FAFSA or “Free Application for Federal Student Aid”. This is a way of calculating the financial support a student will need to attend college. 


For most students, you are dependent on your parents, so your financial aid will be dependent on your family’s income. This includes the income and assets for both you and your parents. It might sound complicated, but there are many resources to help you navigate this process. Here is a guide to filling out the FAFSA  if you want to be walked through it step-by-step.


Another way of receiving aid is through the financial aid package given to you with your acceptance. If a college is eager for a student to attend, they often give out extra aid. The extra aid, even though it might look similar to the FAFSA aid, comes from private sources in the university, like the endowment. Colleges will give this aid out to students without them applying because of their financial situation. 


Can you file the FAFSA as an independent?


Financial need is often determined by the family information filled out when you submit your FAFSA.  Some students want to file as an independent to save money, but most students aren’t eligible to apply as a financial independent


To file as an independent on your FAFSA, you had to have filed as an independent on your tax return. FAFSA is calculated based on these returns, so the two go hand in hand. If you fall into this category, your financial aid will be based on your own income and assets.


What Are Merit-Based Scholarships?


Merit-based scholarships are different from need-based scholarships because they’re awarded based on accomplishments and achievements. The achievements that determine these scholarships can be in a lot of different areas. There are academic achievements, like your GPA or test scores. There are also athletic achievements and athletic or recruiting scholarships are often given out for those. If you have an artistic talent or extracurricular that you excel in, colleges will grant scholarships for those areas as well. 


Let’s say in your application, you submitted a portfolio. You might automatically be given a merit-based scholarship with your admissions package because they want to attract talent with those skills. There are many other areas you can receive a merit-based scholarship in. While there is no guarantee you will get any of these scholarships, there are a lot of different kinds. There is even a scholarship for being left-handed! (Editor’s note: left-handed scholarships actually no longer exist, but there are several other weird scholarships you can apply to.)


A category of merit-based scholarships comes from essays. Oftentimes, non-profits have a mission of getting the word out about their cause and a great way to do that is through writing competitions, where the winner  will receive a scholarship from the non-profit. If you have a knack for writing, go ahead and look for a couple of these contests. They happen often and are a great way to help fund your education. While you can’t really change the need-based scholarships you’re awarded, the merit-based ones are inside of your control. If you are passionate about making your education more affordable, this is a great place to start.


See our post, The Secret to Winning Merit Scholarships, for more tips!