School-Sponsored Merit Scholarships
With the exception of some elite institutions like the Ivy League schools, many universities will offer merit scholarships to the top students in each year’s applicant pool. These range from one-time awards of a few hundred or thousand dollars to renewable, full-tuition or full-ride (i.e. tuition, room and board, and other incidentals) scholarships. Sometimes, there is not an application process for merit scholarships. Especially when offering partial merit scholarships, admissions officers will simply designate their scholarship recipients during the normal application review process and disclose the amount earned when decisions are released. In other words, you’ll just be in for a great surprise when you receive your acceptance letter!
School-sponsored National Merit scholarships also do not require an application. If you perform well on the PSAT and become a National Merit Finalist, selective schools such as University of Southern California (USC), Fordham University, Northeastern University, and others might extend awards of several thousand dollars–up to half- or even full-tuition scholarships–with no extra work on your part. These awards are available even for National Merit Finalists who do not become National Merit Scholars. So, be sure to take the PSAT very seriously!
Other kinds of school-sponsored merit scholarships require additional applications or even nominations from your high school to apply. For instance, if you want to earn special full-tuition scholarships from Tulane (the Dean’s Honors Scholarship, Paul Tulane Award, Stamps Scholarship, and Community Service Fellowship), you will need to submit a separate scholarship application in early December after you submit your standard Early Action or Early Decision application. This unfortunately means more essays, often with out-of-the-box prompts…but as an investment, it could be well worth your time to do a bit more writing.
Occasionally, merit scholarship applications are even more involved. The “heavyweights” of merit scholarship programs in the US are University of North Carolina’s Morehead-Cain Scholarships (a program inspired by the collegiate-level Rhodes Scholarship) and the University of Virginia’s Jefferson and Walentas Scholarships. These prestigious, full-ride scholarships require high schools to nominate their top students, who then go through a multi-round application process that includes interviews and campus visits.
Third-Party Merit Scholarships
In the non–profit and corporate worlds, there is a diverse range of merit-based scholarship opportunities that can help you pay for your education.
Non–profit philanthropic institutions, such as QuestBridge, the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, offer competitive merit scholarships to low-income students with outstanding academic and extracurricular qualifications. As such, these full-ride scholarships are both merit- and need-based, and provide other benefits including early acceptance to prestigious institutions, a cohort of other scholars to connect with on campus, and career and networking opportunities with program alumni. Applications open in the summer and close in early fall.
Corporate scholarships, such as the Coca Cola Scholarship and the Burger King Scholarship, tend to be need-blind and strictly merit-based. These programs will holistically evaluate your high school record, looking for exceptional academic performance, impactful extracurriculars, standout contributions to community service, and any unique personal challenges or hardships you have endured. As major scholarship programs, these will also be highly selective and involve intensive applications and interviews. Deadlines are typically in the fall of senior year.
Lastly, some organizations will offer merit scholarships to students with special qualifications in one particular field, regardless of their overall performance in high school. If you’re a talented artist, student-athlete, or researcher, you may be eligible for national-level awards from institutions such as the YoungArts Foundation, the Foot Locker Scholar Athletes Program, or the Davidson Fellows Scholarship. Certain organizations, especially on the local or regional level, also seek to award scholarships to students based on racial or cultural affinity (e.g. Asian-American students), underrepresentation in particular fields (e.g. women in STEM), or other more esoteric niches (e.g. students intending to pursue trades like commercial fishery or forestry). As you’re looking for merit scholarships, you can consider what talents and skills you have, what major you intend to pursue, and what pieces of your identity are important to you; then, research scholarship opportunities within those specific fields.
How to Prepare to Earn Your Merit Scholarships
You can assume that the higher the level of monetary award, the more competitive the scholarship will be. The programs offering full-tuition or full-ride scholarships attract extremely gifted students and are more competitive than earning admission to schools themselves. Merit scholarship applicants who rise to the top of the pool will usually have a track record of consistent, high-level academic and extracurricular achievement, starting freshman year.
Aiming for these top-flight merit scholarships therefore requires a lot of advance planning and foresight. Students who are interested in these competitive opportunities should dedicate their freshman and sophomore years to steadily building that record of achievement and performing well on standardized testing–including the PSAT. Well in advance of the college application process, junior year is the right time to develop a merit scholarship gameplan. At that point, important factors to consider are your family’s level of financial need, available merit scholarships from colleges and outside institutions that interest you, and your own level of accomplishment in academics and extracurriculars. Once you are aware of all of those parameters, you can build a college list and a scholarship application timeline that will serve you in securing as much funding as you need.