understanding merit scholarships

Understanding Merit Scholarships

College is incredibly expensive, and is becoming more so every year. Many parents and students are worried about how they’ll pay for college, and to address that we’ve discussed financial aid before. While we mentioned merit scholarships in that article, we did not dive in depth. In this article therefore, we’ll explore all the complexities of merit scholarships.

The first thing we’ll cover is what merit scholarships are, and who can get them. We’ll also discuss which schools are more likely to give out merit scholarships. Finally, we’ll discuss how to apply to schools to maximize your chances of receiving merit aid.

What Are Merit Scholarships?

Put simply, merit scholarships are money colleges offer to high achieving students in order to entice them to attend their program. The amount given can vary greatly, from a few thousand dollars all the way through full tuition and a housing stipend.

The difference in the amount of money offered comes from how many resources the school has, and how much they want to entice a student to attend. The more impressive a student is, the more a university will work to secure their attendance. 

The most common merit scholarships are academic. These go to students with high GPAs, test scores, and class ranks. Institutions offer these scholarships to encourage intelligent students who may otherwise apply to top-tier schools to attend their institution instead, and raise the academic caliber of their campus. 

Athletic scholarships are also merit scholarships. Only DI and DII schools are allowed to give athletic scholarships. The larger and more popular a sport, the better scholarship offers are likely to be. Even though the Ivy League is DI, they have an internal agreement to not offer any athletic scholarships. You can learn more about applying to college as an athlete in our guide to the topic.

The rarest form of merit scholarships are those given to students who excel in the arts, usually performing arts. These are generally only awarded by schools or programs dedicated to the performing arts, so most students do not need to worry about them. The competition for these scholarships is the fiercest, as so few are offered.

Why Do Schools Give Merit Scholarships?

The reason schools give athletic scholarships is quite clear; sports victories bring prestige, and the best way to recruit and maintain a winning sports team is by giving them the resources needed to survive college while playing. While football and basketball will always be the most popular recipients for merit aid, many athletes can and do benefit from this.

Academic aid, however, is disbursed for two different reasons. The first is to attract smart students who would otherwise not be interested in attending a school, in order to raise the general academic atmosphere, and the average GPA and test scores of admitted students. Schools that do not have the prestige or name recognition of the Ivy League will try to sway students with offers of full-tuition scholarships, and sometimes housing allowances as well.

This is an understandable motivation; all schools want smart and dedicated students, and to raise their own prestige by turning out high-performing graduates. Top-tier schools attract these students by virtue of being top-rated. Less famous schools rely on monetary offers to attract these high-performing students.

The other reason schools offer merit aid is more cynical. Many parents who can theoretically pay the full price for a school will be more likely to pay out if they receive a discount. $50,000 is a remarkable sticker shock, but if it is softened by a $10,000 per year merit scholarship, then it might start to seem worth it. 

This is done to entice parents and students to attend; the school acknowledging a student’s achievement and giving a discount has been shown to increase their likelihood of attending. It also helps schools raise more tuition revenue; giving a $10,000 discount to net $40,000 per year is still a good deal for many universities.

This funding is needed to support students who cannot pay full tuition. Most schools do not have endowments large enough to cover all students in need of aid; thus they need to entice some students who can pay all or most of the cost out of pocket in order to subsidize those who cannot. These merit aid scholarships should properly be called discounts, as merit rarely factors into it, but again, parents and students enjoy having their hard work noticed by universities, and this again entices them to attend.

How To Get A Merit Scholarship

The easiest way to receive a merit scholarship is to have very high grades and test scores. If your academic performance is competitive for a top tier school, then you are in a good place to compete for merit scholarships at lower-tier institutions.

If you are seeking discounts, then the approach is more complicated. Most schools hire consultants and use complex algorithms to determine who to offer scholarships to, and how large those scholarships should be to entice attendance. It’s impossible for any person to say exactly how those algorithms come to their conclusions, but some of the inputs are known.

Colleges are looking for students who are interested in attending, able to pay most or all of the tuition costs, and who may be convinced to attend (and pay), if offered a discount. Thus appearing interested, but not overly so, in attending a school is more likely to result in a scholarship offer.

Of course, there is no way to guarantee an offer of a scholarship. Casting a wide net when applying is likely to help of course, especially if you apply to schools you are academically well prepared for. There are no guarantees when dealing with something this nebulous and walled off, only odds, and a knowledge of how to play them.

Final Thoughts

Financial aid discussions may feel rather cynical, and perhaps they are. But the pressures on colleges from the market and budgetary demands are intense, and they must meet those somehow. At the same time pressure on parents and students is increasing as well, as they strive to not just get into a good school, but figure out how to pay for it. 

The best way to receive merit aid is still through high grades and test scores, and Ivy Scholars’ test prep has long practice managing that. If you have other questions or concerns about applying to college or want to know which schools your student should apply to in order to maximize their chances of financial aid, you should schedule a free consultation. We have a long history of helping students succeed, and we’re always eager to hear from you.

Wendy Y.
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