A Guide to Finding Merit-Based Financial Aid

College Finance
April 13, 2020
Finding Merit-Based Financial Aid Can Make College Costs Much Easier To Manage…

Yet many students resist starting the search for financial aid. In the world of paying for college, it can quickly start to feel overwhelming and complex. However, it’s much easier to find merit-based financial aid than you may believe, and not every scholarship requires that you write long-form essays or submit portfolios! You can find merit-based aid to help you pay for college that suits your achievements and skills.

The sooner you start looking for financial aid, the more likely you’ll be awarded a piece of the metaphorical financial aid pie.

What You’ll Find In This Article

What Is A Merit-Based Scholarship?

There are many different forms of financial aid available to students, but the type of financial aid that many students are the most familiar with is merit-based financial aid. Merit-based aid is awarded to students who display a record of achievement. While many think that merit-based college scholarships are solely tied to their grades, other achievements are recognized with scholarships.

Students with the following distinctions are often able to find merit aid:

  • High test scores, GPA, and class rank
  • Involvement in community or volunteer efforts
  • A record of demonstrated leadership
  • Extraordinary talent or performance in art, music, and writing
  • Achievement or skill in a varsity sport

Like all forms of financial aid, merit-based college scholarships can help pay for a significant part of your college costs. According to Sallie Mae’s 2019 How America Pays for College report, families used gift aid (including merit-based scholarships) to pay for 33% of college costs. For students crafting a plan to pay for college, merit-based financial aid can help bridge the gap between savings and need-based aid.

What's The Difference Between Merit-Based And Need-Based Financial Aid?

The main difference between merit-based and need-based financial aid is how students are eligible for aid. Need-based financial aid takes into account your financial and personal background, with common examples of need-based aid including the federal Pell Grant and scholarships for first-generation college students. Merit-based aid, as a general rule, does not consider your background and is based solely on your achievements.

However, these are general rules and some scholarships incorporate parts of both need-based and merit-based aid. Some merit-based scholarships do consider your financial and individual background, while some need-based scholarships require that students maintain their GPA.

The distinction between merit-based and need-based aid is one reason it’s critical that every student fills out the FAFSA.

Students who believe they won’t qualify for any aid through the FAFSA due to their family income need to consider the amount of merit-based aid available. By filling out and submitting your FAFSA as soon as possible, you’ll be able to find the financial aid you may never have found on your own, including merit-based scholarships, grants, and work-study programs.

How To Apply For Merit-Based Financial Aid

The largest sources of merit-based financial aid come from private and nonprofit organizations. To save time when finding these scholarships, students should start by identifying which sources of merit-aid are most useful for them. For example, it would make more sense for a skilled pitcher to search for softball scholarships rather than trying to wade through all sports scholarships available.

You’ll want to sit down with a copy of your transcript and an overview of any other talents or achievements when you search for merit-based aid. You don’t want to find a scholarship, get halfway through the essay, only to find out your grades or sports involvement doesn’t meet the requirements. And, as a final note, make sure you keep track of deadlines. You can use alarms and reminders on your phone or a physical calendar, but make sure you know when your merit-based scholarship applications are due!

Tips For Earning Merit-Based Scholarships


Your local community is one of the best places to start your merit-based aid search. Even in smaller communities, many businesses and organizations put together scholarships to help local students avoid student loan debt. Many of these are merit-based, either relating to academics, sports, or skills relevant to the organization awarding the scholarship. Your high school guidance counselor will be one of the best sources of information regarding local scholarships.


While your academics are important when it comes to earning merit-based aid, an average GPA won’t prevent you from earning scholarships. While you may not be able to earn a full-ride scholarship with a low GPA, you may still be eligible for other merit-based scholarships and grants that relate to your talents, sports achievements, or record of leadership.


Ivy League schools offer very little merit-based financial aid. These schools generally focus on need-based financial aid to help lower-income students afford college instead. Therefore, if you’re looking for the maximum amount of merit-aid you should focus your efforts on state schools and other public colleges. Many schools offer merit-based aid to entice competitive students and you can take advantage of this to lower your college costs.


Your college counselor can point you in the direction of merit-based aid that applies to your achievements, but you should take advantage of every tool you can if you want to maximize the amount of merit-aid you receive. There are online databases you can search for aid (such as Big Future) and your high school counselor will generally have the most information about local scholarship opportunities.


The vast majority of all financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. The sooner you begin looking for scholarships, the better. Not only will you give yourself more time to work on any essays or other needed materials to apply, but you’ll also be able to meet deadlines and ensure that your application is considered for aid.

Finding Merit-Based Financial Aid Should Be Your Priority

Merit-based financial aid can be the difference between taking out student loans and paying for college through “free money.” For every student, finding financial aid should be a priority. Even if you think your grades and achievements place you firmly in the “average” category, don’t rule out merit-based aid! Take a look and see what the local scholarships and talent-based scholarships have to offer before you assume you won’t qualify for any aid.

Our WeAdmit counselors know how to capitalize on your strengths, and we’ll be able to point you in the direction of relevant merit-based aid. Once you’ve landed the scholarships and other financial aid you need, we’ll help you bring it all together and help you find a college where you can earn your college degree…

All Without Going Into Debt!



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