Getting a college education can open doors for many students, but figuring out how to pay for tuition can be difficult. While student loans are an option, it’s best to look for alternatives that don’t require repayment. We’re beginning to see colleges and universities highlight different ways of helping students afford their education. Fortunately, there are a growing number of paths for financing higher education. According to a survey by U.S. New and World Report, the average merit award given to full-time undergraduate students was $11,287 in the 2019-2020 academic year. This article will focus on merit-based scholarships for high school seniors (and college students!) and how to get them.
What Is a Merit-Based Scholarship?
A merit-based scholarship is a financial award that can be used to offset the costs of college and university education. One of the best things about merit-based scholarships is that, unlike student loans, they don’t need to be repaid. This helps families and broadens opportunities for students from various backgrounds without burdening them with debt.
There’s a perception that you have to be a straight-A student or star athlete to earn a merit-based scholarship, but it’s more accessible than that. To qualify, students must meet some specific criteria in terms of academic performance, special achievements/skills/interests, and/or financial need.
Typically, eligibility for merit-based scholarships is based on the following:
- Academic performance
- Artistic talent
- Community spirit
- Leadership ability
- Special interests
Before applying for a merit-based scholarship, carefully review the eligibility criteria. Often, the application and selection process is lengthy, so you don’t want to waste time on something for which you won’t qualify!
Colleges With the Most Students Receiving Merit-Based Scholarships
If you’re planning to apply for a merit-based scholarship, it may be a good idea to look for schools where most of the students are receiving them. Based on the 2020-2021 academic year, here are the top five schools with the highest percentages of students who “had no financial need and who were awarded an institutional non-need-based scholarship or grant aid.” Please note that this excludes tuition benefits and athletic awards.
- Vanguard University of Southern California (99%)
- Fisher College – Boston (82%)
- Webb Institute (77%)
- Keiser University (68%)
- New England Conservatory of Music (60%)
Don’t see your school here? This website provides an extensive list of schools with the most students receiving merit aid in the United States.
Colleges With the Largest Merit-Based Scholarships
When choosing a college, it may be worth exploring the size of the merit-based scholarships they’re offering. Not all schools disclose these amounts publicly, but the College Insights tool can be used to sort the Common Data Set information that is available.
Here is a list of the average amount freshmen are offered:
- Webb Institute – $51,700
- University of Richmond – $40,769
- Beloit College – $40,533
- Hendrix College – $39,881
- Albion College – $37,375
- Hartwick College – $36,219
- Susquehanna University – $34,569
- Allegheny College – $33,809
- Clarkson University – $33,670
- Seattle Pacific University – $33,317
Again, this list is not necessarily complete so if you’re interested in a school but don’t see it here, reach out to them and ask about their merit aid. Do this as early in the college application process as possible!
Top Merit-Based Scholarships
At first glance, you might assume that scholarships are all about money, but sometimes it’s about more than that. For example, students may be motivated to earn awards such as the Rhodes Scholarship or the Harry S. Truman Scholarship for prestige. Ultimately, it’s important to assess your needs before deciding which type to choose.
Here are some great merit-based scholarships for high school seniors:
National Merit Scholarship Program
- Financial Award: Varies, but $2,500 for National Merit
- Number of Recipients: Approximately half of all applicants
- Based on PSAT/NMSQT scores
Gates Millennium Scholars Program
- Financial Award: Varies
- Number of Recipients: 1,000
- This program is for “outstanding minority students with significant financial need”
- Financial Award: $20,000
- Number of Recipients: 500
- Scholarship recipients also receive a new laptop and money for textbooks
- All applicants must be eligible for the Pell Grant, which is based on household income.
Barry Goldwater Scholarship
- Financial Award: Up to $7,500
- Number of Recipients: Around 400
- For college sophomores and juniors pursuing careers in engineering, mathematics, and the natural sciences
Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation
- Financial Award: $20,000
- Number of Recipients: 150
- Eligibility is based on academic performance, leadership skills, and volunteer work
- Applicants must undergo an intense interview process.
Udall Undergraduate Scholarship
- Financial Award: Up to $7,000
- Number of Recipients: 55
- College sophomores and juniors can apply for one of three types of scholarships.
- One scholarship is for students pursuing careers in environmentalism or conservation.
- Two scholarships are for Native Americans and Alaska Natives interested in tribal policy or Native health care.
Buick Achievers Scholarship
- Financial Award: Up to $25,000
- Number of Recipients: 50
- Scholarship is renewable for those studying engineering, technology, and related subjects.
- Applicants must demonstrate academic excellence and leadership abilities.
- Financial need may also be considered.
Foot Locker Scholarship
- Financial Award: $20,000, dispersed as $5,000 per year
- Number of Recipients: 20
- This program is for athletes with high GPAs.
Merit-Based Scholarships Based on GPA
One way to clinch merit-based scholarships for high school seniors is with your GPA. This is especially useful for those who have not received any standardized test scores but would like to get a head start on securing merit aid. Here are several good options:
Gen and Kelly Tanabe Scholarship
- Financial award: $1,000
- Deadline: July 31, 2022
- Eligibility: All high school students, college students, graduate students, and adult learners
Clubs of America Scholarship Award
- Financial award: $1,000
- Deadline: August 31, 2022
- Eligibility: Open to college students who write an essay on their career aspirations and have a GPA of 3.0 or higher
Cameron Impact Scholarship
- Financial award: Covers the full cost of tuition
- Deadline: September 9, 2022
- Eligibility: High school seniors enrolling in an accredited four-year U.S. college or university
- Academic requirement: Minimum unweighted 3.7 GPA
American Floral Endowment Scholarships
- Financial award: $300–$4,000
- Deadline: May 1 of each year
- Eligibility: College students pursuing a degree in floriculture or agriculture
- Academic requirement: Minimum 2.0 GPA
Merit-Based Athletic Scholarships
There are many opportunities for merit-based scholarships for high school seniors who are athletes. Some of these scholarships are restricted to students who play a specific sport, while others are open to athletes of any sport. Here are a few great examples:
- Financial award: $500
- Deadline: June 19, 2022
- Eligibility: College students and high school seniors
Billy Welu Scholarship
- Financial award: $1,000
- Deadline: June 22, 2022
- Eligibility: College students with outstanding bowling talents and strong academic performance
Michael Moody Fitness Scholarship
- Financial award: $1,500
- Deadline: August 1, 2022
- Eligibility: High school senior, college or grad students planning to pursue a career in health and fitness
Race Entry Student Scholarship
- Financial award: $500
- Deadline: August 15, 2022
- Eligibility: Students enrolled in college who run in organized races
Heisman High School Scholarship
- Financial award: $500 to $5,000
- Opens: August 16, 2022
- Eligibility: High school senior athletes
How to Apply for Merit-Based Scholarships
Now that you’ve learned about some of the different types of merit-based scholarships for high school seniors (and college students!), it’s time to talk about how to apply.
Above all else, only apply for scholarships that you’re actually qualified to receive. In fact, you’ll want to tailor your efforts to find opportunities that best align with your academic performance, skills, interest, or level of financial need.
Choose the right school.
We’ve listed some of the schools with the best merit-based scholarships, so if receiving aid is essential to your educational journey, you may want to prioritize those colleges. To streamline your research, look for websites that break down scholarships into categories such as public colleges and universities, private national universities, and small liberal arts colleges.
Read the rules.
In recent years, competition for these scholarship awards has intensified, so it’s really important to review the eligibility requirements and application process. These applications often take a lot of time and effort, so you don’t want to be looked over because you missed something in the fine print (or the deadline!).
You want to catch the donor’s attention, so you need to find ways to stand out from the pack. While it’s tempting to just rush through the application process, take the time to share what makes you unique. You want to be memorable when it’s time for them to hand out those awards!
Complete your profile.
Did you need to sign up for a website in order to apply for the scholarship? If so, make sure your profile has been fully completed. Use this space to your advantage by highlighting your strengths and experiences. You never know who might be looking at it!
Apply for more than one scholarship.
You’ve found the perfect merit-based scholarship and applied—so now you’re done, right? Wrong! Even if you meet all of the criteria, you may not be chosen, so it’s best to apply for multiple awards to increase your chances of receiving merit aid.
Submit your FAFSA.
In order to be considered for all potential scholarships, whether they are need-based or merit-based, you need to submit a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application. In fact, this may be a requirement for some of the merit-based scholarships we’ve already discussed.
When it comes to higher education, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. To start, set yourself up for success. First, take the time to do the research to find the right merit-based scholarships for high school seniors. Then put a true effort into submitting a great application. For many, this is the first step toward living the life you deserve—so put your best foot forward!