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Top College Merit Based Scholarships
Merit-based scholarships are one of the best ways for high school students to pay for college. These scholarships award academic excellence and can range from a few thousand dollars up to a full ride scholarship. As a bonus, many college merit scholarships are renewable, which means that you can receive the scholarship for all four years of college!
Jump ahead to:
- What is a college merit scholarship?
- Top merit-based scholarships
- Tips for applying to college merit-based scholarships
In this guide, we will talk about how to win merit scholarships and share some of the top merit scholarship programs for prospective students!
What is a merit scholarship?
A merit scholarship is a scholarship awarded to students who have a record of achievement in academics (including grades and test scores), extracurricular activities, and leadership in their community.
These scholarships can be awarded by specific colleges and universities, as well as private organizations.
Unlike need-based financial aid, merit scholarships do not take into account a student’s financial need as assessed through the FAFSA or CSS Profile. Instead, they are solely determined by a student’s academic achievement.
The specific requirements of merit scholarships will vary from organization to organization. However, most merit scholarships will be assessing candidates according to the following factors:
- High school transcript including grades and the rigor of your high school classes
- Standardized test scores on the ACT or SAT
- Letters of recommendation
Next up, we’ll be walking you through the top merit scholarships offered by colleges and private organizations!
Also see: How to ask for a letter of recommendation
Top merit-based scholarships
Merit scholarships can be awarded by both colleges and universities, as well as private organizations. Below we have organized the top merit scholarships into the following groups:
- Public Colleges & Universities
- Private National Universities
- Small Liberal Arts Colleges
- Private Merit Scholarships
Merit scholarships at public colleges & universities
University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa, AL)
- Alabama offers a wide range of merit programs available to students both in-state and out
Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ)
- ASU offers a number of generous need- and merit-based scholarship programs for students
Auburn University (Auburn, AL)
- Offers the National Scholars Presidential Scholarship to National Merit Finalists and National Achievement Finalists
- This program awards full-tuition scholarships to students both in-state and out-of-state, along with several other perks (including a $1,000 technology stipend)
University of California- Berkeley
- UC-Berkeley offers scholarships based on both need and merit
University of Colorado at Boulder (Boulder, Colorado)
- UC-Boulder offers a variety of merit- and need-based scholarship programs to both in-state and out-of-state students
Georgia Tech (Atlanta, GA)
- Several merit programs are offered, the largest and most prestigious of which is the President’s Scholarship
- The President’s Scholarship is offered to 50 of the top high school senior applicants
University of Michigan- Ann Arbor
- The University of Michigan offers mostly need-based, but several merit scholarships as well
University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill
- Several full-tuition merit scholarships available to students both in-state and out-of-state
University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA)
- For UVa’s Jefferson Scholars program, in-state scholars receive $26,000 each year, and out-of-state or international Jefferson Scholars will receive an annual stipend of over $53,000
- This program creates a network of current scholars and alumni, along with providing a variety of structured enrichment opportunities to scholars
College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA)
- Merit programs include the 1693 Scholars Program and the Monroe Scholars Program ($3,000 research stipend, special housing option)
Merit scholarships at private national universities
Boston College (Chestnut Hill, MA)
- Offers a full-tuition merit scholarship (the Presidential Scholars Program) to 15 students
- No separate application is required to be considered for the scholarship, although students must apply through the Early Action application process
Boston University (Boston, MA)
- BU has generous scholarship opportunities including both need-based and merit-based scholarships
Brandeis College (Waltham, MA)
- Six separate programs available, five of which are for incoming freshmen (with one for rising juniors)
Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA)
- Carnegie Mellon University offers scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students on the basis of both merit and financial need
Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, OH)
- Case Western Reserve University has several scholarships that students are automatically considered for, as well as scholarships by additional application
Duke University (Durham, NC)
- Duke offers 9 merit programs which include full-tuition scholarships
Elon University (Elon, NC)
- Elon offers merit- and need-based programs to students
Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.)
- Check out the Georgetown Incentive Scholarships for need-based aid with a merit component
Lehigh University (Bethlehem, PA)
- A number of merit scholarship programs are offered, including several specific to the arts (look under “Academic Merit Awards/Scholarships”)
New York University (New York, NY)
- NYU offers a mix of merit and need-based programs for students
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY)
- The Rensselaer Medal Scholarship is a 4-year, minimum $15,000 per year merit scholarship
Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX)
- SMU offers merit scholarships up to full tuition & room/board!
- Other scholarships also include awards for students in specific majors (such as Engineering, the arts, and STEM)
University of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois)
- UChicago offers merit scholarships and scholarships specifically meant for first-generation college students
University of Miami (Miami, Florida)
- A number of full-tuition merit scholarships are offered, including the Isaac Bashevis Singer Scholarship and the Ronald A. Hammond Scholarship
University of Rochester (Rochester, NY)
- The University of Rochester offers a wide variety of merit scholarships for all different types of students
University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)
- USC offers a number of full-tuition, half-tuition, and quarter-tuition merit scholarships
Tulane University (New Orleans, LA)
- All students are considered for partial tuition scholarships by simply submitting their application
- There are 130 full tuition scholarships awarded that require a separate scholarship application (that is due on December 5th)y
Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN)
- Full-tuition awards plus summer stipends for study abroad, research or service projects will be awarded to 250 students; other, smaller merit programs are also available
- Villanova University awards a number of scholarships based on students’ academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and leadership skills. Awards range from $500 all the way to the prestigious Presidential Scholarship, which covers full tuition, room, board, general fees, and textbooks for eight semesters
Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, NC)
- WFU has a wide variety of merit programs available to incoming students, including general merit scholarships (such as the Reynolds Scholarships) and scholarships recognizing achievement in art, dance, debate, music, and theater (Presidential Scholarships for Distinguished Achievement)
Washington University in St. Louis
- Washington Universities’ Danforth, Ervin, and Rodriguez Scholar Programs are all merit-based scholarship programs ranging up to the full cost of tuition
Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Worcester, MA)
- Worcester Polytechnic Institute offers merit scholarships to students ranging from $10,000 per year to $25,000 per year
Merit scholarships at small liberal arts colleges
Denison University (Granville, OH)
- Denison offers over 1000 scholarships to first year students
- Scholarships range from $2,000 to $46,000
Kenyon College (Gambier, OH)
- Merit scholarships range from $15,000 per year to the full cost of tuition
- Kenyon awards merit aid to about the top 15% of admitted students
- Scholarships for students talented in art, creative writing, and music are also available
Macalester College (St. Paul, MN)
- Merit scholarships awarded to approximately 50% of U.S. first-year students
- Macalester (unlike many top schools) also offers merit scholarships to International Students
- Merit awards range from $2,000 to $64,000 over four years
Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA)
- Grinnell offers several merit scholarship programs which range from $10,000 to $50,000 per year
Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH)
- Oberlin offers merit scholarships based on academics and also “contributions to the student’s school and home community.”
Private merit scholarships
Cameron Impact Scholarship
- Eligibility: Graduating high school seniors in the USA
- Amount: $20,000
- Deadline: September 8, 2023
National Merit Scholarship Program
- Eligibility: High school juniors and is based on their PSAT score
- Amount: $2,500
- Deadline: Early October of each year
Coca Cola Scholars Program Scholarship
- Eligibility: Graduating high school seniors in the USA
- Amount: $20,000
- Deadline: End of October of each year
College JumpStart Scholarship
- Eligibility: Students in grades 10 to 12, as well as traditional college-age and adult learners
- Amount: $1,000
- Deadline: April 15 and October 17 of each year
Elks Most Valuable Student Scholarship
- Eligibility: Current high school seniors who are citizens of the United States are eligible to apply
- Amount: 500 awards worth from $4,000 to $5,000
- Deadline: Mid-November of each year
Equitable Excellence Scholarship
- Eligibility: High-achieving United States citizens or legal residents in the 50 United States, Washington, D.C., or Puerto Rico who are seniors in high school planning on attending a two or four year college or university
- Amount: $2,500, $10,000 or $25,000
- Opens: October 2022
- Deadline: Mid-December of each year (after 10,000 applications are submitted, the scholarship closes, so apply asap!)
Tips for applying to merit-based scholarships
Here are six important things you need to know if you want to win a college merit scholarship:
Choose the right colleges
One of the biggest mistakes students make when building their college list is not paying enough attention to merit scholarships. As a rule of thumb, you want to identify colleges where your admissions “stats” align with the percentage of students winning merit scholarships.
So, if a college offers merit scholarships to 25% of applicants, you should be in the top 25% of applicants as far as test scores and GPA. Scattergrams are a great way to assess how your GPA and test scores stack up.
Research the specific scholarships
College merit scholarships can vary from college to college. At some schools, all admitted students are automatically considered for merit scholarships.
At other colleges, students will need to complete an essay, separate application, or interview as part of the scholarship application process. Some colleges will even offer merit scholarships for students who have a specific talent in art, music, theater, or another area.
Cast a wide(ish) net
If you are serious about winning a merit scholarship at a specific college, you will need to cast a wide net. While being towards the top of the applicant pool will generally make you a strong candidate for merit scholarships, there are no guarantees.
This is why we recommend that you apply to 10 colleges where you will be seriously competitive for merit scholarships. This will increase your odds of having a few merit scholarship offers to choose from.
Mind your deadlines
Some colleges will ask students to apply by a specific deadline to be eligible for merit scholarships. Make sure that you are applying by the necessary deadlines (remember, this deadline may be different than the admissions deadline).
Don’t forget to apply for need-based financial aid too
Remember, you can apply for both merit scholarships and need-based financial aid! Make sure that you submit your FAFSA and any other required financial aid documents such as the CSS Profile by the necessary deadline.
This will ensure that you are being considered for all potential scholarships–merit and need-based–at the colleges on your list.
Read the fine print about scholarship renewal
Certain schools might require you to submit evidence that you’re maintaining a certain GPA or meeting other requirements to remain eligible for your award.
It’s essential to stay on top of any continuing obligations to your school’s financial aid office.
Need-based financial aid will also need to be renewed, so make sure you understand what the FAFSA renewal process entails!
Seek out local scholarships
Local scholarships are oftentimes your most promising option when it comes to merit scholarships. Because the applicant pool is typically smaller, each entry has a better chance to win. Make sure that you look into local organizations as a major part of your scholarship search.
Oftentimes, your high school guidance counselor will have some resources for finding local scholarships. You can also try looking at organizations such as your local chapter of the Scouts or asking any community leader. Religious institutions, community centers, and 4-H clubs may be able to help.
Try our scholarship search tool
To make sure that you are considering all the available possibilities, try out our free scholarship search tool to get custom-matched, vetted scholarships brought to you daily. These include merit scholarships, need-based scholarships, and combinations of the two.