Merit-Based Scholarships for College Students

Last updated: April 20, 2022

A merit scholarship is a financial award that students receive based on their academic success in high school. Merit-based scholarships are not only limited to a student’s grades, but also consider factors such as leadership roles, ACT and/or SAT scores, extracurricular activities and school or community involvement. Unlike need-based financial aid, merit scholarships do not take into account Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

In many cases, merit-based awards can help lower or completely cover the cost of a typical four-year college tuition. Some scholarships are even awarded to cover multiple academic years based on continuing student performance and involvement.

Some of the most generous financial aid awards come in the form of merit scholarships making them especially helpful for students who are caught in the gap of not qualifying for need-based aid and not being able to pay out-of-pocket for a college education. The same merit scholarship could go to a student living below the poverty level just as easily as it could go to a student in the 1 percent.

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Merit scholarships are commonly offered by colleges and universities, however, many companies, organizations and foundations offer them as well. Explore our guide to learn more about merit-based opportunities and use our interactive scholarship tool to sort through scholarships based on award amount and eligibility.

Tips for Maximizing Merit Aid


Apply where you rank high academically: Applying to colleges where your grades put you in the top 10 percent of the student body can help. If you’re in the top quartile, there is a good chance colleges will try to lure you with merit aid.


Negotiate: If you receive two or more admissions letters from universities, some institutions may be willing to match a merit grant that you were offered by another university.


Compare net prices before choosing a college: In some cases, the largest merit scholarships are offered because the college has the highest net price due to higher tuition. Subtract grants and scholarships from the total cost of attendance (including additional expenses like tuition, fees, room, board, books, and transportation).


Acceptance rate: Typically speaking, the more selective a school is, the more conservative it acts in distributing merit money. Lesser known schools can have a higher acceptance rate and offer more merit scholarships, so be sure to consider a variety of options.


Consider out of state options: To attract out-of-state students, some universities will offer merit-based awards. Call the admissions office to find out whether merit awards are offered to out-of-state students.


How to Pay for College



There are hundreds of scholarships for students who qualify for merit-based aid, which are awarded by local organizations, private companies, societies and more.



Grants don’t need to be paid back and are based on your financial circumstances. They are usually funded by the federal government, your state or college.



While scholarships usually fund tuition, fellowships typically cover graduate study, research projects and abroad experiences without needing to be paid back.


Student Loans

You can borrow money from the government or a bank, but it needs to be paid back with interest. The federal government offers many loan options—fill out the free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see if you qualify for financial aid. If you need help, use our interactive guide to learn how to answer every question.


Federal Work-Study Program

Provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, allowing them to earn money to pay education expenses.


If you’re just beginning the process of finding suitable scholarships, make sure you’re prepared for the application process by starting a folder with the assets below.

Scholarship Application Preparation

Since merit scholarships are typically based on student performance, many awards also have prerequisites, such as requiring a portfolio of your work or a project report, which can take time to prepare.
GPA is a key factor in most merit-based scholarships. Try to get certified copies of your transcript early, so you have plenty of time to meet the deadline.
Good grades, tough courses and high scores on SAT or ACT standardized tests are most generally a prerequisite for merit-based awards and can help you stand out in the crowd against fellow applicants.
Your scholarship essay is what will bring attention to your application out of the pool of applicants. That’s why it’s important to craft a stand out piece that attests to your experience, adheres to the scholarship guidelines and most importantly, highlights your true personality.
Letters of recommendation are a true judgement of your character—something that can’t be revealed through your test scores or transcript. Reach out to former teachers, counselors or bosses, so that they can speak to your qualifications. You may also want to provide them with a resume that outlines your achievements and goals as well.

Merit Scholarships

Instructions: Click through the dropdowns below to sort by award amount.