The Merit of Scholarships (and How to Get Them)

Learn about the process of searching, applying for, and attaining merit scholarships, a very important component of your financial aid package.

CollegeXpress Student Writer, The College of Wooster

Originally Posted: Oct 31, 2018
Last Updated: Jan 29, 2019

When paying for college, there are many bases to cover, and your two main avenues for offsetting the price tags of tuition and room/board are need-based financial aid and merit scholarships.

Merit scholarships are the next step, and perhaps the most important, on your path to paying for your education: in the form of grant money that doesn’t need to be paid back, large scholarships can make paying for college that much easier. Read on to learn about the process of searching, applying for, and attaining these merit scholarships—a very important component of your financial aid package.

Two types of scholarships

The search for scholarships doesn’t just start after you apply to college—it should begin long before, early in the college search and application process when you’re deciding which college you might attend.

There are two types of scholarships: those that a college offers itself (institutional aid) and those that are granted by external sources ranging from high schools and sports organizations to websites and academic or cultural organizations (private or external). The processes for attaining these two types of scholarships are different, as they’re offered by separate sources, but their purpose is the same: to help you mitigate the outstanding cost of your tuition and earn a valuable education without accruing crippling debt.

Scholarships earned by the school you’re applying to and attending are typically the largest awards you’ll get, and this money is separate from need-based financial aid in that it’s based on your grades, test scores, and demonstrated character in high school rather than your financial state. This means you can be a student in a high-income-earning family and still earn considerable merit-based scholarships if you have the grades to show for it. 

However, there are many scholarships from sources external to universities that specifically target students of low-income-earning families. Many academic or cultural organizations will specify that their scholarships go to students of certain ethnicities, income levels, or majors, and some scholarships are also available to students living in certain locations or attending certain school districts, as well as those headed for specific careers like nursing, teaching, and agriculture. Career-targeted scholarships often extend to covering all tuition costs if the student agrees to return a certain number of years of service after college, like a student going into the medical field who will be a nurse for several years at a specific health care facility with a crucial shortage of employees.

All of these targeted scholarships ensure that students of all backgrounds have a good chance at attaining a good education and encourage students to enter in-demand career fields, and they can replace or add to more general scholarships offered by colleges themselves.  

Other scholarships offered by organizations other than colleges include those based on grades and essays. The majority of scholarships you apply for will require you to write a short essay on topics ranging from why college is important to you to what smartphone app you would show first to your favorite president if he were brought back to life (Unigo’s $10K Scholarship of 2018–2019).

Related: College Essays vs. Scholarship Essays: What’s the Difference?

Applying for merit scholarships

The first step in applying for scholarships is to search for colleges themselves, because the college’s financial aid information, including maximum scholarship amounts offered and what grades are required, is important when you’re considering which colleges you’ll apply to. It’s imperative to consider the aid you’ll receive when deciding which college you’ll attend, because your deficit cost after all aid will determine how much debt you are left with later on in life.

For scholarships that are offered by a college you’re applying to, just sending in the college application itself will make you eligible for merit scholarships. Some colleges (and sometimes even separate organizations) also require that you submit the FAFSA to be eligible for these scholarships—but this is required for need-based financial aid anyway. You’ll be awarded an amount based on your grades, test scores, and class placement and will receive a financial aid award letter with this amount and your need-based aid amount when you’re accepted to a college.

Related: Understanding (and Maximizing) Your Financial Aid Package

Many colleges also offer scholarships based on performance or sports, such as scholarships for students who play an instrument and demonstrate particular skill in an audition with the school’s Music department. These scholarships often renew throughout your undergraduate education if you audition each year or participate in a certain number of hours of performance at the school.

Searching for outside scholarships

Moving forward, there are many scholarships you’ll apply for after you’ve applied to and accepted admission at a college. These are the ones you’ll have to search for—the ones offered by organizations separate from your chosen college that are often targeted for specific students as noted above. Always keep on the lookout for scholarship opportunities that may not present themselves as obviously but are still useful for you. Many websites such as CollegeXpress offer scholarship search tools in which you can enter your information and get matched to hundreds of colleges and scholarships. This information will include your age, high school graduation year, intended major, and GPA, as well as many other facts about you that can help match you to scholarships that are just right for you.

Scholarship applications that require you to write essays may still be targeted and will still include information that you must fill out, but they include an essay requirement as a more in-depth look at your character, experience, and writing skills. As you’ve seen in your college applications, writing is a huge component of most applications and tests you will take, as it’s a great indicator of one’s readiness for college. This readiness is what scholarship sources are looking for when deciding which student should win their scholarship money.

When writing your essay, try to be unique. Let your character traits shine through, even if the prompt is something as simple or funny as how you would survive the zombie apocalypse (Unigo’s 2018 Zombie Apocalypse Scholarship). Every essay topic is chosen because it will give insight into how you think.

It’s a good idea to keep an organized list of all scholarships you’re applying to with each deadline to ensure that you fulfill all requirements and don’t miss any deadlines. This way, you’ll have records on which awards you’ve already applied to, which you’re working on now, and which you’ve finished. This will help you keep from feeling mired in so many different applications.

Once you’ve sent in all your scholarship applications, you’ll probably have to wait at least a few months to hear if you’ve won a scholarship or not, but don’t worry: once you’re notified of your receiving the scholarship, you can immediately notify your school in turn and apply the scholarship money toward your remaining deficit.

Related: I’m Not a High School Senior Yet—Can I Still Apply for Scholarships?

The importance of college scholarships

In case it wasn’t obvious until now, scholarships are very important! Both those issued by your college and those awarded by organizations or websites will make all the difference toward paying for your education, which becomes more and more expensive with each year that passes. Therefore, demonstrating exceptional merit through grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and volunteer or internship experience is that much more important, because in some instances, your merit will be high enough for your college to grant you a considerable scholarship that can help you cover the costs of your education (in addition to substantial need-based financial aid, small public loans, and a potential work-study program).

However: there will often still be a deficit after those combined components of aid that must be counteracted. This is where external scholarships come in to make the difference—a better strategy than taking out further loans from private sources that have high interest rates and less repayment flexibility.

Merit-based scholarships from your college and scholarships from other organizations will combine to remunerate a considerable portion of the cost of college. Apply to scholarships liberally and use wisely, and you’ll be on the road to a successful (and much less stressful) college education.

Learn more about scholarships in our Financial Aid section.

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