How to Win Merit Scholarships

February 5, 2024

merit scholarship, merit aid, merit-based scholarships

If you’re the parent of a college-bound teen, you might be panicking over the astronomical cost of tuition, hoping that if you follow the rainbow of FAFSA forms, local scholarships, and the whims of the financial aid officers at the schools to which your child applies, a pot of gold is sure to await you. In fact, money for college is indeed sitting out there like low-hanging fruit. However, for folks who have solid jobs and bring home comfortable incomes, but fall shy of Warren Buffett-level worth by approximately 73 billion dollars and change, the only real shot at paying a reduced tuition rate is through merit-based scholarships—a concept that few families are familiar with. In order to obtain merit scholarships, you first have to understand why the practice exists in the first place and where your child fits within the merit aid solar system.

What is a merit scholarship?

Merit scholarships, or merit aid, are funds awarded to a student from a college or university on the basis of their academic achievement. Unlike a loan, merit-based scholarships do not need to be paid back. This is why they are one of the best ways to slash the cost of a college education.

Why do colleges offer merit-based scholarships?

Let’s begin with a brief summary of merit aid’s institutional purpose. In an effort to boost attendance and meet enrollment targets, many colleges have devoted an increasing share of their budgets to attracting desirable students via the offering of merit-based (i.e., non-need-based) financial aid. Consequently, using merit scholarships to lure high-achieving or high-scoring students can improve a college’s ranking and prestige by raising the average statistics of the incoming class. Then, the more selective a college has the opportunity to become, the more its applicant profile continues to rise.

In other words, these schools aren’t handing out money because they are nice or because they know that your 401K took a hit last year. They are doing it because your sons and daughters represent a valuable commodity to them. Accordingly, recognizing this reality is the first step toward achieving a winning mindset with regard to the procurement of merit aid.

What are the best colleges for merit scholarships?

When determining the best colleges for merit-based scholarships, it’s important to look at two numbers: 1) the percentage of undergraduates who receive merit aid and 2) the average non-need merit scholarship award. For example, Duke’s average merit award is over $74,000, but it’s only awarded to approximately 2% of undergraduates. However, 60% of Fairfield University undergraduates receive an average merit scholarship of just under $20,000.

Here’s a selection of top merit-aid-granting institutions, sourced from our Average Merit Aid table:

School % Receiving Merit Aid Average Merit Scholarship Award
Olin College of Engineering 56% $28,399
Cooper Union 52% $28,198
DePauw University 48% $35,090
Rhodes College 48% $30,149
Furman University 46% $26,764
Case Western Reserve University 41% $26,072
Worcester Polytechnic Institute 41% $20,439
Lewis & Clark College 38% $25,806
Drexel University 36% $20,347
The College of Wooster 34% $34,133
Sarah Lawrence College 31% $25,661

Do I need to submit a separate application for merit-based scholarships?

It depends. Some colleges, like Fordham University and Miami University of Ohio, automatically consider students for even their most lucrative merit-based scholarships while others require additional materials. For example, to be eligible for Boston University’s full-tuition-granting Trustee Scholarship, students must submit two additional essays alongside their application. Moreover, Southern Methodist University’s President’s Scholars Program requires finalists to attend an in-person, on-campus interview.

Even if you don’t need to submit separate materials, you may need to submit your application by a certain date in order to receive maximum scholarship consideration. For example, students targeting Miami University of Ohio must apply by December 1st  for priority merit scholarship consideration.  Additionally, although you’ll be considered for scholarships at the University of Pittsburgh as long as you submit your application by December 1st, they begin awarding scholarships in early October and urge applicants to apply as early as possible for the best shot at funding. Accordingly, by simply tracking deadlines and submitting your applications early, you can increase your chance of earning a merit scholarship.

Wondering how to put yourself in the best position for merit-based scholarships? Below, we’ve outlined five strategies that can increase your chance of winning merit scholarships from the institutions to which you are applying.

1) Shift your mindset.

Students traditionally approach the admissions process from a place of desperation, “Please, please accept me!” This isn’t exactly the best mindset for a consumer in any marketplace and yes, a college applicant is in fact a consumer. When you realize that many admissions officers feel an equal or greater level of desperation to land a student like you, the tables suddenly turn.

Think we’re exaggerating just to make you feel better? Take a guess at what percentage of admissions directors hit their enrollment goals for 2023. Give up?


You read that correctly. Just over one-third of colleges and universities nationwide were able to attract enough qualified students to their campuses last year. So, while students may be lining up by the tens of thousands to get into a school like Stanford, there are many schools that will offer you tens of thousands for the honor of calling you a member of their freshman class.

2) Target selective but not the most selective schools.

Once you’ve shifted your mindset, focus on constructing a college list comprised of “good-fit” schools that are likely to reach deep into their coffers to nab a student with your academic profile. Knowing how to spot these schools takes knowledge as well as a sober understanding of where you stand relative to other applicants.

Firstly, most selective means in the absolute sense (Harvard, Yale, etc.) and in the relative (the most selective schools to which you could conceivably gain admission). The most selective schools in the country—the Ivies and Ivy-caliber institutions—rarely award scholarships based strictly on merit. This is because 1) they award almost all of their aid according to demonstrated financial need and 2) they already attract a surplus of students with remarkable credentials. In other words, Columbia isn’t going to throw money at you, even if you are an amazing enough student to be granted admission, because there are thousands of other “yous” in the hopper.

Now the relative consideration about selectivity: If your goal is landing merit aid, then you should not be trying to get into the most selective college that will accept you. Outside of the crème de la crème, there exist a number of highly selective and moderately selective schools that do regularly offer merit aid to attract students. Accordingly, the question becomes—do they have the incentive to offer it to you? And the answer all comes down to how you compare to the rest of their applicant pool.

Merit Scholarships — Continued

In general, schools where you are at or above the 75th percentile for standardized test scores and GPA/class rank are likely to offer a significant amount of merit aid to land you. For example, let’s say you are applying to a selective school like Northeastern University, known for being fairly generous with merit aid. Moreover, you have a 1450 SAT and finished just inside the top 10% of your high school class. Although 1450 is an excellent score, it is right around the 25th percentile for admitted applicants at Northeastern. Their 75th percentile is closer to 1550. You might get into Northeastern but unless you possess some other rare and valuable gift (how’s your slap shot looking?), you’re not likely to get much relief from the $86,821 cost of attendance.

Yet, if you turn your attention to nearby Bentley University, another reputable school known for dangling handsome merit aid packages, the result would likely be quite different. Since a 1450 SAT is above their 75th percentile, you’d be exactly the type of applicant Bentley wants to lure away from its competitors.

Finally, a quick peek at a college’s yield rate (the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll) can give you even more information about the possibility of earning merit-based scholarships. Typically, the higher the yield rate, the less chance you’ll have of receiving merit aid. For example, Ivies and Ivy-equivalent schools have very high yield rates, meaning they rarely need to compete for applicants and thus have very little incentive to woo prospective students with merit-based scholarships. However, schools with lower yield rates must work harder to retain accepted applicants.  This is where generous merit aid packages can enter the equation. Yield rate can be calculated using any school’s Common Data Set.

3) Target private schools.

Private colleges are more likely to be generous in dishing out merit scholarships primarily because they have larger endowments. However, out of the 131 U.S. colleges and universities that have an endowment of over one billion dollars, 61% are private institutions, and the public universities that grace the list are far thriftier with their awards. If you’d like to compare merit aid awards for over 300 colleges, check out College Transitions’ searchable list of merit aid awards by institution.

Firstly, let’s look at how a sampling of state universities that possess billion-dollar endowments award merit-based scholarships.

School % Receiving Non-Need-Based Merit Aid Average Merit Award
University of California – Los Angeles 4% $6,573
University of California – Berkeley 6% $7,288
University of California – San Diego 4% $12,701
University of Virginia 7% $5,389
Virginia Tech 10% $3,348
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill 5% $6,127
North Carolina State University 7% $5,032

Then, let’s compare those relatively meager offerings to the generosity of private universities within those same three states—North Carolina, Virginia, and California.

School % Receiving Non-Need-Based Merit Aid Average Merit Award
Claremont McKenna College 6% $18,491
Santa Clara University 36% $16,589
Pepperdine 32% $17,145
Washington and Lee 7% $44,320
University of Richmond 22% $27,128
Wake Forest 30% $32,196
Davidson 4% $29,885

Further analysis of this data is needed, however. We need to see how these merit-based scholarships would impact the overall cost of attendance (COA) for both in-state and out-of-state students. For this comparison, we’ll look only at our four North Carolina schools.

Merit Scholarships — Continued

In-State Student

School Annual Cost of Attendance (in-state) COA w/ Average Merit Aid Award
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill $25,964 $19,837
North Carolina State University $26,814 $21,782
Wake Forest $90,148 $57,952
Davidson $79,225 $49,340

Okay, so for in-state students, the public schools remain a far lower-cost option even with the offer of an average award at Davidson and Wake Forest. However, let’s see what happens to an out-of-state student considering all four institutions.

Out-of-State Student

School Annual Cost of Attendance (out-of-state) COA w/ Average Merit Aid Award
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill $56,304 $50,177
North Carolina State University $49,685 $44,653
Wake Forest $90,148 $57,952
Davidson $79,225 $49,340

As you can see, private schools can be far more generous with merit scholarships. Accordingly, if you were an out-of-state candidate choosing between attending one of these excellent institutions, you would now have a more difficult decision to make. In this scenario, Davidson’s total cost would actually fall slightly below that of UNC-Chapel Hill and not much higher than NC State.

4) Use geography to your advantage.

Close to three-quarters of college-bound students attend school in-state, while 58% choose schools within a 100-mile radius of their home. Only 11% of students opt for an institution more than 500 miles away. Moreover, a mere 2% of teens are adventurous enough to enroll in institutions more than 2,000 miles from their parents’ abode. One has to figure that a good portion of this 2% involves individuals in Los Angeles or San Francisco making their way to hotbeds of elite schools on the East Coast, or vice versa. This makes the student who leaves, say, Casper, Wyoming to attend Bowdoin College quite the rarity. Accordingly, it can increase that student’s odds of winning merit-based scholarships.

This is because colleges crave something called geographic diversity; that is, a student body comprised of young people from all around the country and even the globe. Most institutions of higher learning sincerely believe in the value of bringing together people with diverse backgrounds, upbringings, and experiences onto one campus. Of course, on a more selfish level, they also want to be able to tout on promotional material that their freshman class is comprised of students from all 50 states and however many countries.

Merit Scholarships — Continued

As a result, you can use this to your benefit from admissions standpoint. For example, the most common states that UPenn’s Class of 2027 hail from are Pennsylvania, New York, California, New Jersey, and Texas. Thus, it is not hard to imagine why star students from Mississippi are at an advantage. While UPenn, specifically, may not have to use merit aid to lure top students, other excellent schools in or near major metropolitan areas will salivate over a qualified applicant from places like Idaho, North Dakota, or Montana. If you are from a similarly remote locale, there’s a strong chance that it will help from both an admissions and financial standpoint. Your geographic desirability can be parlayed into a merit aid award just by targeting schools far away from home.

5) Research formulaic merit scholarships.

A growing number of schools, usually larger state universities, literally have formulaic scholarship tables that tell you how much merit money you’re likely to get. While many are not guarantees of monetary awards, knowing, in general, what criteria equates to what level of scholarship consideration can be quite informative.

As usual, it starts with the good ol’ meat and potatoes of the application – strong test scores and a high grade point average. For example, Colorado State University has a range of scholarships for students with GPAs from 3.3-4.0. At CSU, the amounts awarded to non-residents are much greater than scholarships for Colorado residents, who already enjoy a greatly reduced in-state tuition. Texas Tech University offers as much as $8,000 per year for a 1450 SAT and unweighted GPA of between 3.96-4.0, but students with significantly lower scores and at least a 3.0 GPA can apply for awards in the range of $1,000-$5,000 per year. Other schools, like Miami University of Ohio will award scholarships starting at $15k to non-resident students with a weighted GPA of 4.3 or higher. Students with GPAs in the 3.5 range are eligible for at least $4k.

Moreover, there are countless other schools that offer large awards to students who aren’t nearly as high-achieving. For example, Birmingham-Southern College offers five-figure annual awards to students with SATs as low as 1060 and GPAs as low as 2.9. In addition, at the University of New Mexico, non-resident applicants with SATs in the 1130-1240 range and a 3.0-3.5 GPA are eligible for up to $23k in annual merit aid.

Final Thoughts — How to Win Merit Scholarships

There is indeed money available for college in the form of merit-based scholarships, but few prospective college students are savvy enough to situate themselves in the best position to receive it. Adopting a shrewd consumer mindset and strategically targeting schools (especially private ones) where you would be considered a catch are the keys to actually finding that proverbial pot of gold or, more accurately, a sizable tuition discount that will at least make that outrageous sticker price a bit more palatable.

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