Merit-based scholarships help millions of students pay their way through college each year. Designated for high-achieving students, these scholarships are often hard to get and frequently involve intensive application processes. But they also often pay out large awards and sometimes offer non-monetary support as well in the form of mentorship and guidance.
If you are interested in applying for merit scholarships, this guide will tell you everything you need to know about these awards, so you can confidently and easily navigate through the application process.
What’s a merit scholarship?
Merit scholarships are a form of scholarship awards that are granted based on the academic achievements of the student.
When people refer to merit scholarships, they are generally referring to scholarships for which grades and test scores serve as the main selection criteria. While there are a few scholarships that are awarded purely based on academic achievements, most merit scholarships also take into account other factors, including ethnicity, gender, field of study, extracurricular accomplishments, and leadership.
How to find merit scholarships
There are a few different ways for students to gain access to merit scholarships.
The National Merit Scholarship Program is the largest scholarship competition in the United States, with over 1.6 million participants every year. In order to enter, applicants first need to take the PSAT. Applicants who score in the top 1 percent of test-takers will be invited to send in additional application materials to compete for scholarships.
Many students receive merit scholarships through colleges and universities as part of the financial aid package they receive when they are admitted. Typically, students are automatically screened for these scholarships and do not need to apply for them.
Many colleges also offer competitive merit scholarships that students can apply to. Students interested in these kinds of scholarships should speak to their college or university’s bursar office for information about available merit scholarship competitions open to students at their institution.
Many private foundations and even corporations also offer merit scholarships for students who excel in their given field. Generally, private scholarships come in the form of scholarship competitions that require students to submit applications.
Lastly, many students can gain access to local scholarships that are awarded to students who are from or attend school in a specific geographic area. Students often find local scholarships through their high school guidance counselors.
Students can find all of these types of merit scholarships and more by using TUN’s Scholarship Search Engine.
National Merit Scholarship Program
The National Merit Scholarship Program is the largest private scholarship program in the United States. Each year, over 1.6 million students compete for National Merit Scholarships simply by taking the PSAT/NMSQT, an SAT practice test that most students take during their junior year of high school.
Of those 1.6 million test-takers, the top 1 percent of test-takers (approximately 16,000 students) in each state, are named semifinalists in the National Merit Scholarship Competition. Semifinalists are invited to submit applications to be considered for scholarships. Of this group, 15,000 students are named finalists in the competition, and approximately 7,500 finalists win scholarships through the National Merit Scholarship Program.
These are the three types of scholarships available through the National Merit Scholarship Program.
National Merit Scholarship
The featured scholarship of the National Merit Scholarship program is a $2,500 scholarship that is awarded to 2,500 finalists each year.
Corporate-sponsored merit scholarships
Corporate-sponsored scholarships are offered in partnership with foundations and businesses. These scholarships are granted to finalists who meet a set of criteria specified by the corporate sponsor. Common eligibility criteria include being children of employees, residents of specific states, localities, and communities, and finalists studying certain majors or career plans.
Corporate-sponsored scholarship awards vary in amount by sponsor. Available awards include one-time grants worth $2,500 to $5,000 as well as renewable scholarships worth $1,000 to $10,000. Over 2,100 corporate-sponsored scholarships are given out each year. Recipients are notified in early March of their award year.
A list of corporate sponsors is available in the official PSAT/NMSQT Student Guide.
College-sponsored merit scholarships
College-sponsored merit scholarships are available to finalists who plan to attend a partner college. In order to receive the award, applicants must notify the National Merit Scholarship Corporation that the sponsor college is their first choice.
The award size varies by sponsor school and may be anywhere from $500 to $2,000 per year. All scholarships are renewable for up to four years of study. An estimated 4,100 applicants will receive college-sponsored awards in 2020. Recipients are notified in early May of their award year.
A list of partner schools is included in the official PSAT/NMSQT Student Guide.
College & university merit scholarships
Many students receive merit scholarships through their universities. These come in the form of both merit aid and competitive scholarships. Many colleges with high sticker prices, for example, may offer generous merit aid to lower the overall cost of college for their students and encourage high-achieving students to choose their program.
Many colleges automatically screen students for merit scholarship eligibility when they are admitted and include merit aid in the financial aid package the student receives upon admission. Oberlin College & Conservatory, for example, offers 100 percent of conservatory and dual-degree students merit scholarships and uses merit scholarships to help meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for all students.
Here are the top five U.S. colleges where the most students receive merit aid:
- Webb Institute (88% of students receiving aid)
- Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering (57% of students receiving aid)
- Trinity University (53% of students receiving aid)
- Samford University (50% of students receiving aid)
- University of the South (50% of students receiving aid)
Private merit scholarships
These prestigious scholarships are open to excellent students of all backgrounds. Students are awarded based on their academic achievements, leadership qualities, and extracurricular engagement.
Here are a few examples of excellent private scholarships.
The Bryan Cameron Education Foundation is a private family foundation established in 2015 by asset management professional Bryan Cameron and his family with the intention of supporting the academic careers of promising college students. The Cameron Impact Scholarship is a four-year, full-tuition scholarship awarded to students who have demonstrated all-around excellence in academics, extracurricular activities, leadership, and community service. Awards are granted irrespective of race, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and other background factors.
The Davidson Institute, an organization dedicated to supporting the education of gifted and high-achieving young students, offers the Davidson Fellows Scholarship, a unique program that recognizes, awards, and supports high school students who complete a “significant piece of work” in one of the following application categories: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Literature, Music, Philosophy, and Outside the Box. Applicants’ projects are expected to demonstrate a college graduate level depth of knowledge in their award category. Various types of projects have been awarded in past years on the basis of creativity, originality, innovation, broad-range implications, prodigious performance, and other qualities. Scholarship awards are in the following amounts: $50,000, $25,000, and $10,000.
The Coca-Cola Scholars Program is a national scholarship program that awards over $3.5 million in awards to 150 graduating high school seniors each year. Students win awards of $20,000 based on academic achievements as well as their leadership abilities and service to their communities.
The Dell Scholars Program awards 500 students each year, providing substantial financial support and non-monetary aid, including access to academic, financial, emotional, and professional support networks. Awarded students receive $20,000 plus $500 annual Chegg credits to put toward textbook purchases and rentals and a laptop with a four-year warranty.
The GE-Reagan Foundation Scholarship awards several students annually with a $10,000 scholarship that is renewable for up to three additional years for a total of $40,000. Applicants are expected to demonstrate several key qualities, including academic excellence, leadership in their community, drive, outstanding citizenship, and integrity.
Merit scholarships for specific groups
Many merit scholarships are offered to specific types of students. These scholarships may be open only to students of a specific ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, major, or religious background.
Here are a few examples of excellent scholarships for targeted groups of students.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) offers one of the most unique scholarships available. The CIA Undergraduate Scholarship is a merit and needs-based scholarship that offers students an award up to $18,000 per calendar year (STEM recipients receive up to $25,000) plus a full starting salary in return for working summer internships at the CIA during their tenure. Recipients of this scholarship are also required to accept continued employment with the CIA after graduation for a period equal to 1.5 times the length of the college sponsorship they received from the CIA. This scholarship is limited to students in certain majors, specifically: engineering, computer and information sciences, foreign languages, international relations, human resources, and finance/banking.
The McDonald’s Hispanic American Commitment to Education Resources (HACER) scholarship provides resources for Hispanic seniors entering college. Intended to help outstanding Hispanic high school seniors, the program offers awards of $100,000 (over 4 years) based on academic achievement, financial need, community involvement, and their performance in an interview during the application period.
The Jackie Robinson Foundation, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to narrowing the racial achievement gap in higher education, runs a four-year scholarship program that provides minority students with financial assistance, mentorship, and career guidance throughout their college experience. The JRF Scholars grant offers up to $30,000 in financial aid over four years. Scholars also have access to internships and employment opportunities with corporate JRF sponsors and institutional partners.
The Ron Brown Scholarship, dedicated to the memory of pioneering U.S. politician Ronald H. Brown, offers scholarships worth $40,000, awarded in increments of $10,000 over four years, to high-achieving and financially-needy African American students who demonstrate an interest in public service, community engagement, business entrepreneurship, and global citizenship. Students must be graduating high school seniors at the time of application and may study any academic of their choice at an accredited four-year college or university in the United States.
Each year, Tang Scholarships help LGBT Asian and Pacific Islanders from the Bay Area afford post-secondary education. Applicants must self-identify as Asian/Pacific Islander and gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, graduate from a high school in one of the nine Bay Area counties, be U.S. citizens or legal residents, demonstrate financial hardship, demonstrate academic promise, meet a minimum 3.0 GPA requirement, and be between the ages of 17 and 25.
The Federal Employee Education Assistance Fund (FEAA) offers merit-based scholarships to the children, stepchildren, and legal dependents of certain federal employees. Specifically, the sponsoring federal employee must be a full- or part-time permanent federal civilian or postal worker who has been employed by the federal government for more than 3 years. Spouses of eligible employees and eligible federal and civilian postal workers may also apply. Scholarships are awarded based on the basis of academic and personal achievement, community service record, recommendations, and the quality of writing in the application submission.
Local and regional scholarships
Many local nonprofit organizations and businesses offer scholarships for students who live in or around their area of operation. These scholarships often offer small awards, but have smaller applicant pools and are easier to win than high-profile national scholarships.
Here are just a few examples of popular local and regional scholarships:
The Lariat Future Innovators Foundation offers the Lariat STEM scholarship. This scholarship is targeted to lower-income high school seniors and current college students who are pursuing degrees in STEM fields and come from rural areas in several southern states. The scholarship is regionally-limited to students from towns and cities with populations under 25,000 in the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.
Charlotte, North Carolina’s Blumenthal Performing Arts Center offers the Gordon Hay Scholarship, a merit scholarship intended for students from Charlotte and surrounding areas who are studying toward a career in non-performance theater.
The SET Educational Fund is a scholarship program designed to support Michigan students and encourage high-achieving Michigan residents to stay in their home state. Each year, the SET Educational Fund provides scholarships to Michigan residents attending Michigan colleges. Applicants must live in Michigan and plan to enroll in or currently be enrolled in an undergraduate program at a Michigan college or university. Awards are granted based on financial need, academic merit, and community involvement.
The Milton Fisher Scholarship is a four-year renewable scholarship for exceptionally creative and innovative high school juniors, high school seniors, and college freshmen. Applicants must be Connecticut or New York City metropolitan area residents who plan to attend college anywhere in the United States, or residents of anywhere in the United States who plan to attend or attend a college or university in Connecticut or New York City.
The Esperanza Education Fund provides scholarships to graduating seniors or recent GED grads from Washington D.C., Maryland, or Virginia who are either immigrants or have immigrant parents. Applicants must also be planning to enroll full-time at an accredited public college or university and have a family income of less than $100,000.
The Edmund F. Maxwell Foundation Scholarship is a financial need-based scholarship for high school seniors in Western Washington who are pursuing higher education at a private college or university in the state. Applicants must seek a four-year degree at an accredited private institution, have attended the last two years of high school, and lived in a location west of the Cascade Mountains, and demonstrate financial need.
The State Fair VA Youth Livestock Scholarship Program annually awards money to Virginia students who participate in the state fair. Applicants over the age of nine who participated in the 2020 State Fair of Virginia 4H & FFA youth livestock program are eligible to apply. There are three separate age groups, and applicants are judged based on a number of categories, including state fair participation, academics, school leadership, community service, and essays.
The Gerber Foundation offers a merit scholarship open to students from any of the following counties in Western Michigan: Newaygo, Muskegon, and Oceana County. Applicants should have a GPA between 2.0 and 3.7.
How to get a merit scholarship
Winning a merit scholarship can seem daunting at first, but it is very achievable if you are willing to plan, organize, and work toward a scholarship.
Before applying for any scholarships, you should speak with your guidance counselor about your interest in applying for merit scholarships. They will help you find scholarships that are within reach based on your qualifications. They will also help you find smaller local scholarships that are less competitive.
You will also need to gather all of the necessary documentation that you will need when you begin applications. Most scholarships will ask you to supply a transcript of grades, test scores, and financial aid information. You may also need letters of recommendation, so you should reach out to mentors and teachers who can offer those for you. Having this information handy when you begin applications will simplify and streamline the application process.
Once you have all your materials ready to go, you should create a list of scholarships that you want to apply for. It is best to have a diverse list of scholarships that varies in competitiveness and qualifications. For example, your list should include competitive national scholarships that pay large awards, less competitive local and regional scholarships, and scholarships that are specific to your major. This will give you the best chance at winning an award.
Finally, it’s time to begin applying for scholarships. You can apply for as many merit scholarships as possible. Some students apply for dozens. As long as you have all of your core application materials ready, you can even apply to five or six per week. The more you apply to, the higher your chances of winning!
There are thousands of merit scholarships out there for the taking. With a strong application and an organized plan, there’s no reason why you can’t win one of these coveted awards.