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The Ultimate Guide to Finding & Applying for Merit Scholarships

Thursday, June 22, 2023


For most students, financial aid is an important part of the college admissions process. You will likely complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is useful for receiving need-based financial aid, but that isn’t your only option. There are countless merit scholarships available if you take the time to seek them out.  

Let’s look at how to find and apply for merit scholarships.     

What Are Merit-Based Scholarships? 

If you’re looking for ways to fund your education, merit-based aid is worth considering. This type of aid is based on academic and/or extracurricular achievements, rather than financial need. Scholarships are the most common form of merit-based aid, and they’re offered by nonprofit organizations, private businesses, and colleges and universities. Keep an eye out for these opportunities to help pay for your education! 

Learn more about financial aid for colleges.

How Do I Use Merit Aid? 

When a student is awarded merit aid, the amount is meant to be used toward tuition, fees, room, and board. Most merit scholarships only cover a portion of these costs. Depending on the scholarship, the funds may go directly to the school or be issued to the student as a check or direct deposit.   

While merit scholarships typically do not need to be repaid, some of them come with terms that the student must meet. For example, the scholarship recipient will only continue to receive funds as long as they maintain a certain GPA or remain involved in specific activities or programs.

How Do I Apply for Merit Scholarships? 

First, talk to your school counselor and search online databases for scholarship opportunities. There are numerous options, so take your time to look at them. Choose scholarships you meet the criteria for and that align with your needs. The process of applying for scholarships can be arduous and time-consuming, so plan on applying for no more than five at first. You can do more if time permits.   

College and University Scholarships 

Many colleges and universities offer merit scholarships to attract students.  

  • Student-athletes may be offered scholarships as an enticement to play for the college team.  
  • Alumni organizations may offer scholarships to students studying a particular major, participating in a certain club or organization, or living in a certain geographic area.  
  • Other scholarships may be awarded to foster diversity and increase enrollment of underrepresented groups, such as women in STEM majors or minority students. 


It’s worth looking into what types of merit scholarships you may be eligible for at your best-fit schools and how to apply for them. In some cases, you might be offered a merit-based scholarship automatically as part of your financial aid package once you’re accepted.

National Merit Scholarships 

This program awards recognition and scholarships to high school students across the U.S. who are high academic achievers. According to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, about 1.5 million students enter the program each year, so it is extremely competitive. Students who meet the entry and participation requirements must take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) — this is typically done during junior year.    

Corporate Scholarships 

Many private companies offer scholarships. Some of these scholarships may only be available to employees and their relatives, but others are available to the public and are often awarded to students pursuing a specific area of study. In some cases, these are need-based scholarships, so verify the type of scholarship being awarded before you apply.   

Member Organization Scholarships 

Another option is to look at professional and educational associations. Many of them award scholarships to undergraduate students pursuing related disciplines. For example, the American Psychological Association offers numerous scholarships and grants to students in qualifying psychology-related programs.   

Private Scholarships 

You can also find scholarships awarded by individuals or small organizations, though these often come with significant eligibility criteria. However, that can work to your advantage if you meet the requirements.   

Need-Based Aid vs. Merit-Based Financial Aid: What Are the Differences? 

Traditional financial aid — student loans, work-study programs, and grants — is based on your family’s ability to pay for your education expenses. It is awarded to help cover the costs and make college more affordable. Some scholarships are also awarded based on financial need. Student loans need to be repaid with interest, while other forms of financial aid do not need to be repaid.  

Merit-based financial aid does not take your financial situation into account. These funds are based on your achievements either in or out of the classroom, or both. While you do not have to repay a merit award, you may have to fulfill certain requirements to maintain your eligibility.      

Unlocking Your Financial Potential: How to Calculate Your Financial Need 

Calculating financial need can be complex, but online tools are available that make it easier. Before you fill out the FAFSA, get an early estimate of your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which includes your family’s taxed and untaxed income, benefits, and assets as well as the size of your family and the number of family members who are attending postsecondary school.   

How to Maximize Your Financial Aid 

Each college you apply to will determine your financial need by first calculating your cost of attendance (COA) based on your enrollment status — half-time or full-time — then subtracting the EFC determined by your FAFSA. This means the amount of need-based aid you receive will vary by school and could impact where you attend college.  

However, it’s worth your time to reach out to the financial aid office, especially if your top-choice school offers less financial aid than other schools that offered admission.  Expert guidance is available for every step of your college admissions journey, including advice on financial aid leveraging. Schedule an Initial Consultation to learn how IvyWise can help you achieve your academic goals.  


Related Topics

College Admission Advice, Financial Aid
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