#College Essays and Applications

Your student has worked hard all through high school, and now it’s time to apply to college. Hopefully, their grades will not only give them more options for their college list, but also unlock financial rewards in the form of merit aid and scholarships.

What is merit aid? 

Merit aid is awarded based on a student’s achievements. These may be academic, but you don’t need to be a straight A student to earn them—achievements can include athletics, leadership, extracurriculars, community service, or excellence in a certain subject.

The majority of academic merit aid comes from colleges themselves, and amounts are typically determined by GPA and/or standardized test scores. Some colleges even post their scholarship criteria on their websites for prospective students to assess before they apply. For instance, students eligible for the University Scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh typically had a minimum 1480 SAT/33 ACT, overall A average in rigorous high school classes, and were in the top 5% of their graduating class (if applicable).

Merit aid often applies to all four academic years, but can also be a one-time award. Be sure to check your acceptance letters or contact financial aid offices for clarification. You should also check requirements to keep the funding—does a student need to maintain a certain GPA in college to continue receiving the scholarship each year?

Your family’s financial need is not considered when determining merit aid eligibility. This might be music to the ears of many families caught between not being eligible for much need-based aid, but also unable to pay the cost of college out of pocket.

So how can you ensure that your student receives the highest amount of merit aid possible?

Tips for Maximizing Merit Aid

Before Applying:

  • Keep your grades up and stay involved in activities you love! Better person = better applicant when it comes to scholarships, too—not just admissions applications. 
  • If you may be eligible for some need-based aid, then calculate your schools’ net price to estimate the cost after that financial aid has been applied. 
  • Remember that many highly selective colleges do not offer merit aid. Instead, they often promise to meet full financial need. Be sure to research types of aid offered at various schools, so that you and your student aren’t surprised by a package later.
  • Look at colleges where your student is in the top 10–25% of applicants. This is where they will qualify for the highest awards.
  • Consider acceptance rates. More selective schools are typically more conservative when it comes to giving away money. Lesser-known schools have fewer applicants, which raises the percentage they accept, and they try to attract students by offering more aid. 
  • Look out of state! Higher tuition rates mean you might be eligible for larger scholarships, even though the eligibility criteria is often the same as for in-state applicants.
  • Think about applying to private colleges. Twenty-five percent of private school applicants between 2019–2020 received merit aid compared to 18% at public institutions.

While Applying:

  • Check colleges’ websites to see what scholarships they offer. Many will be awarded automatically based on GPA and test scores, but additional applications may be required to evaluate qualitative factors like leadership and community service. 
  • Apply to honors programs, especially if your student is in the top tier of applicants. These programs might offer more scholarships and extra perks, like early course registration and special housing, in addition to providing opportunities for greater academic rigor. 

After Applying:

  • Negotiate to see if a school higher on your student’s list will match a scholarship that they received elsewhere. Don’t be shy—you could get thousands of dollars more per year!
  • Calculate and compare net price before choosing a college. A larger scholarship may not take much off the price if it’s from a college that is expensive to begin with. 
  • Inquire about legacy scholarships if your student has family members who attended the college(s) to which they applied. 
Notes & Tips on Outside Scholarships

While most merit aid comes directly from colleges, students can apply for more scholarships through outside sources. Check out our blog post on independent scholarships for more information on finding the right ones for you.