Understanding Merit Scholarships: Your Guide to Financial Aid Success

Last updated on - December 29, 2023

Understanding Merit Scholarships: Your Guide to Financial Aid Success

As a college advisor and mom, I know how crucial it is to find the right mix of financial resources to pay for college. When my kids were in college, I experienced it firsthand. One of the most sought-after gems of financial aid was and still is the "Merit Scholarship."

So, gather around as we explore the wonders of merit scholarships. We'll unveil the secrets to winning them and how they differ from need-based scholarships. We'll also look at the different types of merit scholarships colleges and private organizations offer.

What is a Merit Scholarship?

A merit scholarship (or merit aid) is a type of financial aid given to students based on their academic, extracurricular, artistic, or athletic accomplishments.

Unlike need-based aid, which considers a student's family's financial situation, merit scholarships are solely based on a student's talents, achievements, and potential for success.

>>RELATED: How to Get a Full-Ride Scholarship

Merit Aid vs. Need-Based Aid: What’s the Difference?

Merit scholarships and need-based scholarships have different requirements for eligibility. Need-based aid looks at the financial need of the student's family, considering their income, assets, and overall financial situation.

On the other hand, merit aid focuses on a student's exceptional skills, talents, or achievements that make them stand out academically or in other areas. Colleges and organizations offer merit scholarships to attract and support high-achieving students, creating a competitive and talented student community.

Merit Scholarships from Colleges

Colleges give out merit aid to attract bright students to their campuses. These scholarships can be competitive, and the requirements may differ depending on the school.

Some colleges consider all applicants for merit scholarships, while others want extra applications or essays.

Two examples of merit scholarships offered through colleges are:

  1. Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholarship (Vanderbilt University): Vanderbilt University awards the prestigious Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholarship to top-performing students who excel in their studies, show outstanding leadership skills, and positively impact their communities. This incredible scholarship covers full tuition expenses for all four years of undergraduate study at the university.
  2. Emory Scholars Program (Emory University): Emory University invites exceptional students with curious minds and strong leadership qualities to join their Emory Scholars Program. Emory Scholars receive a full or partial tuition scholarship, plus exciting opportunities for research, studying abroad, and personal growth. People who get this scholarship might not have to pay for their whole four years of college or just part of it.

Merit Scholarships from Private Organizations

Besides colleges, private organizations and companies also give out merit scholarships. These scholarships can be for certain subjects, activities, or community involvement. It can help pay for things like tuition, housing, books, and other education costs.

Two examples of merit scholarships offered through private organizations are:

  1. Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship: The Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship, by the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, honors bright and community-minded high school seniors. This prestigious award celebrates students with top grades, leadership skills, and a passion for helping others. It covers tuition, fees, books, and more.
  2. The Gates Scholarship: The Gates Scholarship, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supports outstanding minority students with financial need. This scholarship pays for all college expenses at any accredited four-year university.

Different Types of Merit Scholarships

Whether you're an academic standout, a skilled artist, a compassionate community contributor, or a future leader, there's a scholarship out there just waiting for you.

Let's dive in and discover the different types of merit aid that can turn your dreams into reality.

  1. Academic Excellence Scholarships: Awarded to students with exceptional academic records, including high GPAs, rigorous coursework, and impressive standardized test scores.
  2.  Leadership Achievement Scholarships: Given to students who have demonstrated outstanding leadership skills and actively contributed to their school or community through extracurricular activities and community service.
  3.  Athletic Scholarships: Awarded to student-athletes who excel in sports and demonstrate potential to contribute to college sports teams.
  4.  Artistic or Creative Scholarships: Designed for students with exceptional talents in areas such as music, visual arts, theater, dance, or creative writing.
  5.  Community Service Scholarships: Given to students who have made significant contributions to their communities through volunteer work and community service.
  6.  Major-Specific Scholarships: Offered to students pursuing specific majors or fields of study, encouraging excellence in those areas.
  7.  First-Generation Scholarships: Aimed at supporting students who will be the first in their families to attend college.
  8.  Diversity Scholarships: Intended to promote diversity and inclusion, these scholarships support students from various cultural backgrounds or underrepresented communities.
  9.  Merit-Based Leadership Scholarships: Combining academic achievement and leadership qualities, these scholarships recognize students who excel in both areas.
  10.  Entrepreneurship Scholarships: Given to students with exceptional entrepreneurial skills and innovative thinking.
  11.  STEM Scholarships: Focused on supporting students pursuing studies in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

Next, we'll look at some of the top merit scholarships in the country.

>>RELATED: How to Get Scholarships in 2023

20 Colleges that offer Top Merit Scholarships

Some colleges known for offering good merit scholarships include:

  1. Vanderbilt University - Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholarship, Chancellor's Scholarship
  2.  Duke University - Robertson Scholars Leadership Program
  3.  Emory University - Emory Scholars Program
  4.  Washington University in St. Louis - Annika Rodriguez Scholars Program
  5.  University of Chicago - Stamps Scholarship
  6.  Boston University - Trustee Scholarship
  7.  University of Southern California (USC) - Trustee Scholarship
  8.  University of Virginia - Jefferson Scholars Program
  9.  Wake Forest University - Presidential Scholarship
  10.  Rice University - Trustee Distinguished Scholarship
  11.  Tulane University - Distinguished Scholar Award
  12.  University of Miami - Stamps Scholars Program
  13.  Case Western Reserve University - Provost Scholarship, President's Scholarship
  14.  University of Richmond - Richmond Scholars Program
  15.  Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) - President's Scholarship Program
  16.  University of Notre Dame - Stamps Scholarship
  17.  University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - Morehead-Cain Scholarship
  18.  Fordham University - Presidential Scholarship
  19.  University of Rochester - Rochester Promise Scholarship, Frederick Douglass Scholarship
  20.  University of Alabama - Presidential Scholarship, National Merit Scholarship

The list above only represents a small number of merit scholarships offered by colleges throughout the US.

Keep in mind, practically every college that's not an Ivy League will offer some form of merit aid. Ivy League schools and a few highly selective colleges only offer need-based aid. These schools already attract the top students, so they do not have to use merit aid for that purpose. However, these colleges tend to offer some of the most generous need-based financial aid around.

Why Colleges Give Out Merit Scholarships

Colleges give out merit scholarships to help students and make their schools better. They give scholarships to different kinds of students for various reasons.

  1. Attracting Top Students: Colleges want smart and talented students to attend their schools. So, they offer merit aid to students who do really well in school, sports, art, or leadership. The colleges hope that by providing these scholarships, the best students will choose to study there.
  2.  Making the College Look Good: Colleges giving merit aid to great students helps their reputation. Having bright and talented students on campus makes the college look better and more attractive to others. Think US News and World Report rankings.
  3.  Having a Diverse Campus: Colleges know that having students from different places and backgrounds is the key to creating a more diverse, vibrant, and dynamic campus community. So, they use merit aid to entice students from different cultures, places, and financial situations to join their campus community.
  4.  Encouraging Success: Merit aid rewards students who have done great things in school or outside activities. Colleges give these to motivate students to keep doing well and reach for success.
  5.  Keeping the Best Students: Merit scholarships are not only for new students but also for current ones. Therefore, colleges offer these scholarships to retain their best students and prevent them from transferring to other schools.

So, if you work hard and do well in school or have special talents, you might qualify for merit aid to help cover your college costs.

>>RELATED: How to Use the Net Price Calculator

How to Improve Your Chances of Winning a Merit Scholarship

Winning a merit scholarship can be a great way to get closer to your dreams of going to college and earning your degree without too much debt.

Here are some valuable tips to increase your chances of getting that well-deserved aid:

Tips for Winning a Merit Scholarship:

  1. Focus on academics and maintain a high GPA.
  2.  Pursue your passions and excel in your interests.
  3.  Get involved in extracurricular activities and show leadership.
  4.  Take challenging courses to demonstrate academic commitment.
  5.  Prepare for standardized tests.
  6.  Seek leadership opportunities within clubs or organizations.
  7.  Craft strong essays that showcase your personality.
  8.  Secure compelling recommendation letters.
  9.  Research scholarship opportunities and meet application requirements.
  10.  Demonstrate financial need if applicable.
  11.  Stay positive and persistent in your scholarship applications.


There's a scholarship for you no matter if you're good at academics, art, leadership, or helping your community. So, don't be afraid to check out merit scholarships.

Remember, getting a merit scholarship is a competitive process and each one has its own requirements. That's why it's important to focus on what you're good at, take on challenging opportunities, and be yourself. By doing this, you'll have a better chance of winning one of these special scholarships.

Want to learn the tips, tricks and strategies to win scholarships?

Subscribe below to receive our free Scholarship Essay Guide

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


and learn how to find and win scholarships.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.