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What Is a Merit Scholarship & How to Get One

October 17, 2019 · 5 minute read

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What Is a Merit Scholarship & How to Get One

It’s no secret that attending college in the United States comes with a hefty price tag. According to U.S. News & World Report data , the average cost of college tuition and fees for the academic year 2018–2019 was $35,676 for private universities, $9,716 for public universities (in-state students), and $21,629 for public institutions (out-of-state students).

So how exactly does one go about affording college? There are many avenues to fund higher education that one could take. Grants offer money to help college students cover the cost of their education, usually based on financial need.

Money received by grants does not typically need to be repaid. Student loans, on the other hand, refer to a lump sum of money that is loaned out for the purpose of covering educational costs upfront. Student loans require repayment on a specific schedule and with added interest.

In addition to grants and student loans, another possible way to fund your college education is to receive a merit-based scholarship. But what is a merit based scholarship? And how do you secure one?

What is a Merit Scholarship?

A merit based scholarship is awarded to an individual on the basis of academic excellence, talent, and/or certain achievements. While some scholarships may review the financial needs of the student, it’s not typically the primary focus of the application.

Merit scholarships for college exist to acknowledge things like academic, athletic, or artistic promise and success.

They could also apply to specialty and niche interests, such as a specific degree programs. The money could either come from the academic institution itself or an outside individual or organization.

So what are merit based scholarships able to do for the total cost of your college education? These scholarships could help cover a portion of (and in certain cases, the full amount of) tuition, room, and board, therefore helping decrease the overall cost of college. Like grants, the money from scholarships does not need to be repaid. Here are a few common types of merit scholarships:

Academic Merit Scholarships

Academic merit scholarships award money to students who demonstrate significant academic achievement in high school. Often, academic merit scholarships will take into account:

•  GPA

•  Standardized test scores

•  Class rank

Depending on the school, you may not need to submit or do anything extra to be awarded a merit-based scholarship. Instead, the school may decide based on your application alone. Note that the exact criteria considered can vary based on the school.

Athletic Merit Scholarships

Athletic merit scholarships help fund higher education for those students demonstrating exceptional athletic ability in a specific sport. What is a merit scholarship for college able to offer to young athletes beyond monetary incentives?

Typically, a school will give scholarship money to a student athlete in exchange for a spot on the school’s corresponding sports team.

If you’re interested in an athletic scholarship keep in mind that getting recruited can be a time intensive process. Unless your talent rivals that of Usain Bolt, you’ll likely have to do some leg work, too. Depending on the sport you play you may need a highlight reel or video that shows off your skills. Coaches will also typically want to review your stats.

Most schools will also want to see your academic records and SAT or ACT scores as well. You might also consider reaching out to coaches at the schools you are interested in attending.

Artistic Merit Scholarships

What is a merit based scholarship capable of doing for a student’s creative development? Artistic merit scholarships honor students who exhibit exceptional artistic talent and promise. This could include the performing arts, creative writing, painting, drawing, dance, and more.

These scholarships could be available at both art schools and more traditional liberal arts colleges, and usually require students to submit an artistic portfolio to the scholarship decision committee in addition to their high school transcripts.

Special Interest Merit Scholarships

Special interest merit scholarships provide students with specific skills and/or demonstrated interests money to attend college to further develop and explore that particular skill or interest. As just one example, the Park Scholar Program at Ithaca College awards full-ride scholarships to students with demonstrated passion for media and community service.

During their four years at Ithaca College, Park Scholars must sustain their interest in media by working towards a degree from the Roy H. Park School of Communications, while also participating in volunteer work every semester.

Doing Your Research

Now that you’ve figured out exactly what a merit scholarship for college is and are now familiar with some common types of merit based scholarships, it’s time to start applying. But how do you find the scholarship that’s perfect for your unique skill set and future academic goals?

Online resources and databases abound to help you identify merit based scholarships across the United States. Some websites like and allow you to search using school name, sponsor name or organization, and other keywords.

It could be a good idea to make a running list or spreadsheet of all of the merit based scholarships that you are interested in, so you can keep the specific due dates and application requirements organized. This could potentially help relieve some stress as you go through the application process.

Consider Starting Early

Many merit-based scholarships look for demonstrated excellence over the course of an applicant’s entire four years of high school. Therefore, it could be a good idea to start thinking about what types of merit scholarships you’re interested in applying for as early as possible.

Let’s say you’re a high school senior and very talented photographer who has just found an artistic merit scholarship at your dream school! You sit down to begin the application when you see that the scholarship requires a cumulative GPA of 3.7 and you only have a 3.6. If you had done your due-diligence to research scholarships even a year earlier, you possibly could have brought up your grades up enough to qualify.

Maintaining Your Scholarship

It is important to note that some merit based scholarships could require the scholarship recipient to maintain a certain grade point average (GPA) and/or require specific campus or community involvement to continue receiving consistent scholarship funding.

If you do decide to apply for a merit based scholarship, it’s a good idea to be prepared to not only do the hard work to secure the scholarship but also maintain it once you get to campus. After all, what is a merit scholarship good for if you can’t sustain it and continue to reap its financial benefits?

Other Ways to Help Finance College Tuition

If you do not meet the requirements for any merit scholarships for college, there are still many financing options available to you. Often the first step for students looking to secure aid is by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA ®). Students must fill this out in order to receive any federal aid, including federal grants and scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans.

The federal work-study program sets students up with part-time jobs where they can earn money to put towards their educational costs.

New federal student loans boast consistent fixed interest rates, expectations for repayment, income-driven repayment plans, and possible forgiveness programs. Depending on your level of need you may qualify for either subsidized or unsubsidized student loans. With a subsidized loan (for undergrads only), the federal government pays for any accruing interest on your loans while you’re in school; with an unsubsidized loan, you have to take care of the interest yourself.

If federal aid and merit based scholarships aren’t enough to cover the cost of a college education, private student loans could be an option. These loans are offered by banks and private institutions. Students and their co-signers (if applicable) apply for private student loans as if they were applying to other types of loans, such as auto and home loans.

Since they are not beholden to the same criteria as federal loan terms, private student lenders are able to determine their own unique term lengths, interest rates, and repayment plans; thus, private loans could hypothetically offer more flexible options for students—or at least fill in any gaps between the cost of attendance and the amount of federal aid and scholarships they receive.

If you think that private student loans could be a good option for you, you could consider SoFi’s private student loans. With no fees, flexible repayment plans, and a convenient online application, financing your education has never been easier.

Ready to make a plan to finance college? Learn more about the options SoFi offers for private student loans.

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