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What Is a Merit Scholarship?


For millions of students each year, there is no easy path to financing a college education. In fact, the CollegeBoard recently estimated that two-thirds of college students paid for college with the help of financial aid. While this funding often comes in the form of federal loans or private grants and loans, it also sometimes comes as a scholarship.


Many students don’t initially realize that there are two primary types of scholarships—need-based and merit scholarships. While need-based scholarships take your financial need into account when determining whether or not you’ll be a recipient, merit-based scholarships are something else entirely.


In this post, we’ll discuss what a merit-based scholarship is, who grants them, and where to find some merit scholarships that might be a great fit for you. Don’t miss out on your chance to learn more about this exciting way to contribute towards your college expenses.



What Is a Merit-Based Scholarship?

Simply put, a merit scholarship is awarded based entirely on your merits, and not on your need for financial aid. In general, this means that an applicant’s performance within a targeted area is evaluated by the scholarship committee and that the most outstanding applicants in that area will ultimately receive the scholarships, regardless of their financial standing.


The merits upon which these scholarships are awarded generally vary depending on the organization that is granting them. Some merit scholarships look at overall academic performance, test scores, and teacher recommendations. Others are based entirely on your performance on a standardized test or on your performance and dedication within a certain field of study, like music or math.


Sometimes, you must meet other requirements to qualify for a merit scholarship. Certain scholarships are available only to students in specific states or regions. Some are awarded to graduates of specific high schools or to members or a specific community, like a church or civic group. Some merit scholarships are for students of a certain gender, race, or background. Just because a scholarship is merit-based does not necessarily mean that it is blind to other factors, aside from your financial background.

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Who Awards Merit Scholarships?

The organizations funding scholarships vary as widely as the merits upon which they are based. The only common factor is that they are all privately funded. There are no federally funded merit scholarships.


Some merit scholarship organizers are local groups, like local community or cultural organizations. Others are national groups like the Gates Millennium Scholarship or the Coca Cola Scholars Scholarship. Most colleges also award their own merit scholarships, which are sometimes endowed gifts from alumni.


Usually the size and scope of the funding organization determines how competitive a merit scholarship is. Smaller organizations, like town and regional groups, will be less competitive than national groups that receive applicants from across the country. In order to determine how likely you are to be a competitive candidate, consider how large of a field the scholarship draws from.



Where to Find Merit Scholarships

Sometimes, finding merit scholarships can be almost as difficult as winning them. Smaller, local ones may not be well publicized or well known. Even larger scholarships are generally not advertised. Instead, you will have to seek these opportunities out for yourself.


Luckily, there are plenty of ways to get started. To find local scholarships, try an online query through the archives of a local newspaper. Most local scholarships are announced publicly in the newspaper and you might be able to find a handful that have been awarded in the past. Once you know the names of them, you can probably research each individually with a separate web query. If not, try contacting the scholarship organization to learn more.


For a larger scale search, consider using an online scholarship search tool. There are many of these available, and most will allow you to filter based on your own specific merits. For example, at Scholarships.com you can simply enter your background information, interests, and academic stats and voila—a whole list of possible scholarships curated especially for you will appear. To show only merit scholarships, simply check the merit-based box to filter your search.


Finally, use all of the resources available by discussing your search with your guidance counselor and other mentors. Guidance counselors and teachers have probably heard of many scholarships received by alums of your high school. Take advantage of these leads by following up on them.


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You can also learn about available scholarships from these awesome CollegeVine posts:


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To learn more about the scholarship application process and other financial considerations for your college planning, check out these CollegeVine posts:


Helpful Scholarship Resources & Tips

What You Need to Know for a Successful Scholarship Season

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Borrowing For Beginners: An Introduction to Student Loans

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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.