As college admissions have become more competitive and tuition has increased across the board, schools are offering more and more merit scholarships in order to entice top-tier students to attend. Merit scholarships—as opposed to need-based scholarships, which are distributed according to financial need—are awarded for talent in academics, service, athletics, the arts, and other areas. Each college has its own method of bestowing funds, so it is important to research the merit aid process at each school on your college list.

Some colleges automatically consider all applicants for merit scholarships. Other schools require applicants to complete a separate merit scholarship application and/or essay. Some institutions have an early cut-off date by which students must apply to be considered for merit aid; Emory’s, for example, is November 15. Finally, there are colleges like the University of Rochester that offer further merit scholarships to returning students, in addition to any money they were promised as incoming freshmen.

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Factors that Determine Merit Aid

Your high school academic record is usually the most important factor in determining your chances of being offered merit aid. Colleges often weigh factors including grade point average, standardized test scores, and the strength of your high school curriculum. For many students, this can be the largest source of scholarship funding. In fact, some colleges, including Boston College and Duke, award full-tuition merit scholarships to small groups of exceptionally qualified students.

But factors outside of your academic record—such as your interest and talents in athletics, volunteerism, and the arts—play a role, too. The unique institutional priorities of each college influence the nature of its merit scholarships. Lehigh University, for example, offers a number of arts-based scholarships, including the Cutler-Sametz Choral Arts Scholarships, “available for gifted students in the Choral Arts who maintain at least a 2.8 grade point average,” and the Performing Arts Scholarships in Theatre, which “recognize students with exceptional theatrical (including performance, design, technical, and playwriting) talent.” At Georgetown University, there is a scholarship awarded specifically to an undergraduate undertaking a six-month spring semester internship at ABC’s “Nightline” program.

For qualified applicants to the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College, “There is no minimum GPA or SAT score requirement. However, we are looking for students with outstanding academic records, who hold leadership roles in their school and who are committed to and have a demonstrated interest in community service. Typically, the students selected are in the top 1-2 percent of the national pool of freshman applicants.”

Certain merit scholarships are available only to members of specific demographic groups. At the University of Michigan, for example, there are scholarships available specifically to minority and female students of Ford employees; students whose immediate families have been affected by pediatric cancer; and undergrads who are primary caregivers and have returned to school after a break.

Automatic Consideration vs. Separate Application

Some colleges, such as TulaneOberlin, and USC, automatically consider all applicants for merit scholarships. Most such colleges will consider students for merit aid based solely on the application for admission, but some require that students complete the FAFSA or click “yes” on the Common Application to being considered for merit scholarships at that particular school.

At other schools, separate applications may be required, such as for Lehigh’s arts-specific merit scholarships. These supplemental applications may include additional essays and/or samples of your work, such as videos of monologues or musical performances. The Signature Scholars Programs at Washington University in St. Louis, for example, requires that applicants respond to a short answer question and an essay question for each program they apply to, and, if they become finalists, participate in an all-expenses-paid weekend program (currently virtual) in March.

At Vanderbilt University, once a student applies for admission, they are emailed within two days to set up a separate account on which to submit their scholarship applications by December 1st. Similarly, Boston University, which has a particularly generous scholarship that covers 20 undergraduates’ full tuition each year, requires submitting your application by December 1st and completing an additional Trustee Scholarship essay on the Common Application.

In addition to Tulane’s automatic consideration of students for certain scholarships, Tulane has several merit scholarships that do require supplemental materials and have specific application procedures, such as the Deans’ Honor Scholarship, the Paul Tulane Award, the Stamps Scholarship, the Louisiana Excellence Award (Louisiana high school students only), and the Community Service Fellowship.

Schools that Award Significant Merit Aid

Based on information from colleges’ Common Data Set info, a few of the colleges that award the highest average merit aid package (in dollars) to non-need undergraduates include Trinity College, Swarthmore College, Wesleyan University, and Washington & Lee University. Swarthmore’s average merit award for students with no financial need, for example, is $54,918; Wesleyan’s is $43,394.

But often, these schools award merit aid to a small percentage of their students: Swarthmore gives these generous packages to 2% of students, while Wesleyan gives to less than 1%! The colleges that award merit aid to over 90% of non-need undergraduates, in contrast, often give smaller packages. Fairfield University, for example, awards merit aid to 60% of students, with an average package of $19,178.

This info can be found on each college’s Common Data Set, which is available on the school’s website. The Common Data Set is a collaborative initiative among higher education institutions to provide a standard format for colleges to report institutional data on enrollment, admissions, financial aid, academic programs, and student life.

Benefits Associated with Merit Scholarships

When evaluating your options, keep in mind that merit scholarships can offer more than just monetary rewards. Many, such as UVA’s Jefferson Scholars Program, offer significant enrichment opportunities, such as access to leadership and study abroad programs, and internships with program alumni.

Another example is the Bonner Scholars Program at the University of Richmond, which is tied to a deep commitment to community service. Scholarship recipients intern for 10 hours a week for four years at an organization that aligns with their service goals. Bonner Scholars also participate in on-campus reflective exercises and educational programming.

College is expensive, and there are many paths to finding both your “best-fit” school and the best financial package. For more guidance and information on college-sponsored merit scholarships or any other aspect of admissions, feel free to set up a complimentary consultation to learn about our college admissions consulting services. Whatever your question, Collegiate Gateway is happy to help!