Paying for college: How to win merit aid

April 15, 2014

MeritBasedNeedBasedAidAt the risk of sounding like Matthew Lesko, the question mark suit-clad lunatic of early 2000s infomercial fame, COLLEGES WANT TO GIVE YOU FREE MONEY!!!

Okay, so schools aren’t exactly looking to send cash to any freeloader with a self-addressed stamp envelope, but each year billions upon billions of dollars are indeed handed out by institutions for the purpose of luring desirable students onto their campuses.

The top factors in netting merit aid

As usual, it starts with the good ol’ meat and potatoes of the application – strong test scores and a high grade point average. Some colleges, especially larger institutions, literally have formulaic scholarship tables that tell you how much money you’re likely to get from them. Trinity University in Texas is just one of a slew of schools that take much of the suspense out of the merit aid process through such means.

Maximizing your chances

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, you as a college applicant are in fact a consumer (revisit our blog on the “big picture” view of college admissions for a refresher).

When you realize that many admissions officers feel an equal desperation to land a student like you, the tables suddenly turn. The focus is now on constructing a college list comprised of “good-fit” schools that are likely to reach deep into their coffers for a student with your academic profile.

Strategic targeting of schools is critical in the merit aid chase. The Ivies and other uber-selective colleges rarely award scholarships based strictly on merit, primarily because they don’t have to—these schools attract plenty of students with remarkable credentials and bank accounts, and as such,  award almost all of their aid according to financial need.  However, dozens of equally reputable yet slightly less selective institutions will open their pockets to high achieving students.  George Washington, Tulane, and the University of Richmond are just a few of the many prominent colleges that strategically use merit aid to increase their institutional rank and profile.

In general, look for schools where you are close to the 75th percentile for SAT scores and GPA/class rank. Don’t be deterred by the sticker price of private colleges in this process. In general, private schools offer larger merit aid packages which can knock their tuition below that of seemingly cheaper state schools you may have been considering.

Keeping your merit aid

When merit aid is offered there is typically a stipulation that you must maintain a certain GPA to be able to renew the scholarship beyond freshman year. The exact number fluctuates from school to school.  For example, Drexel University requires that students maintain a 2.75, Hofstra a 3.0, while Rutgers demands a more stringent 3.25. The only other common requirement is that you remain a full time student, carrying a full credit load.

Which schools offer the most merit aid?

College Transitions is proud to present the most up-to-date list of selective colleges and universities that offer merit aid (click here to see our full list). Use this resource and you may make out even better than these captains of industry.