Understanding Merit Scholarships: A Comprehensive Guide


Kate Sliunkova

AdmitYogi, Stanford MBA & MA in Education



8 min read

Understanding Merit Scholarships: A Comprehensive Guide


Merit scholarships are prestigious awards granted to students based on their academic excellence, talent, or notable achievements. Unlike scholarships focused on financial need, merit scholarships prioritize exceptional performance and potential. These scholarships can significantly reduce the overall cost of college education by covering a portion or, in some cases, the entire tuition, room, and board expenses. Typically, the funds received from merit scholarships do not need to be repaid, similar to grants.

Types of Merit Scholarships

Colleges and Universities

Many colleges and universities offer their own merit aid programs to attract talented students. These programs may vary from one institution to another. Some colleges automatically consider all applicants for merit scholarships, while others require a separate application. The scholarship amounts can also differ, with some covering full tuition and others providing partial coverage.

Academic Merit Scholarships

Academic merit scholarships recognize students who have demonstrated exceptional academic achievement during high school. Factors such as GPA, standardized test scores, class rank, and other academic accomplishments are typically considered. Some colleges award merit scholarships based on the application alone, without requiring any additional materials. However, specific criteria may vary among institutions.

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Athletic Merit Scholarships

NCAA Division I and II schools often offer athletic scholarships to outstanding student-athletes. Pursuing an athletic scholarship requires dedicated effort and involvement in the recruitment process. Depending on the sport, applicants may need to submit a highlight reel showcasing their skills, and coaches may review their performance statistics. Academic records and SAT or ACT scores are also important considerations for most schools. Prospective student-athletes are encouraged to reach out to coaches at their desired colleges or universities.

Merit Scholarship Options from Member Organizations

Member organizations, which often require membership fees, frequently provide scholarships to students. Some scholarships are exclusively awarded to organization members, while others are open to any student pursuing a specific field of study. For example, the National Association of Flavors and Food-Ingredient Systems (NAFFS) offers an annual scholarship to outstanding food science students. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) grants the Richard and Elizabeth Dean Scholarship to students pursuing undergraduate degrees in American Studies. The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) also offers scholarships to applicants studying engineering, engineering technology, or computer science at accredited universities.

Private Companies

Private companies such as Coca-Cola, Burger King, Google, and others offer annual scholarships to students. Each scholarship has its own eligibility criteria and application requirements, which can vary significantly. For instance, the Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship awards 150 scholarships worth $20,000 each to graduating high school seniors planning to enroll in an accredited U.S. college or university. The Burger King Scholars Program provides scholarships to high school seniors with a minimum GPA of 2.5, demonstrated community involvement, and enrollment plans in an accredited U.S. college. Since its establishment in 2005, this program has awarded over $50 million to 43,000 students. The Generation Google Scholarship focuses on students pursuing computer science degrees, granting recipients a $10,000 scholarship for the 2022-2023 school year.

How to Apply for a Merit Scholarship

The application process for merit scholarships varies depending on the scholarship. Some scholarships, such as those offered by colleges and universities, do not require additional paperwork beyond the standard application to the institution. However, applying for scholarships from external sources may be more time-consuming and involve various requirements. In addition to providing personal information, students may need to write an essay, gather letters of recommendation, or participate in an interview.

When applying for private merit scholarships, it is important to directly contact the organization offering the award to understand the specific application requirements. Keeping track of all the scholarships you're interested in, their due dates, and application requirements in a spreadsheet can help you stay organized throughout the application process, reducing stress and increasing your chances of success.

What Can Merit Scholarships Cover?

In most cases, if a merit scholarship is offered by the college or university, the funds will be applied directly to your tuition expenses. If there is any remaining money after tuition is paid, it can be used for other educational costs such as room and board, books, or fees. Each institution has its own procedures for awarding merit aid, so it's essential to clarify any questions with the financial aid office.

Merit Scholarships and Taxes

Generally, merit scholarships are not taxable according to the IRS. As long as the scholarship meets certain conditions, including being used for tuition, fees, books, and supplies at an educational institution, it is considered tax-free. However, scholarships used for incidental expenses like room and board, travel, or optional equipment may be subject to taxation. Scholarships awarded as payment for teaching, research, or other services may also be taxable, with a few exceptions like the National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program or the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship and Financial Assistance Program. If you're uncertain about the tax status of a scholarship you've received, consulting a tax professional can provide personalized guidance based on your situation.

Finding Merit Scholarships

To find merit scholarships, start by checking with your college or university to see if they offer any school-specific awards. They can provide information on how to apply, including any additional application requirements. Additionally, numerous online resources and databases are available to help you identify merit-based scholarships across the United States. If you're pursuing a graduate degree, specific scholarships and grants may be available for graduate students. Creating a list or spreadsheet of the scholarships you're interested in, along with their due dates and requirements, can help you stay organized and reduce the stress of the application process.

We also highly recommend checking out our curated list of scholarships, which includes over 200 offered by a variety of universities. You can discover your favorite scholarships here!

Consider Starting Early

Many merit-based scholarships consider an applicant's performance throughout their high school years. It's advisable to start exploring potential scholarships and their requirements as early as possible. By planning ahead and maintaining consistent academic excellence and extracurricular involvement, you increase your chances of qualifying for these prestigious awards.

Maintaining Your Scholarship

It's important to note that some merit-based scholarships require recipients to maintain a certain grade point average (GPA) and participate in specific campus or community activities to continue receiving funding. If you are awarded a merit scholarship, be prepared to put in the effort not only to secure it but also to maintain it throughout your college years. Familiarize yourself with the scholarship's renewal criteria to ensure your continued eligibility.

Other Financing Options

If you don't meet the requirements for any merit scholarships, numerous financing options can help you afford college tuition. Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is a crucial step for accessing federal aid, including grants, work-study programs, and federal student loans. The federal work-study program provides part-time jobs that enable students to earn money for educational expenses. Additionally, exploring private loans, scholarships from local organizations, or employer tuition assistance programs can expand your options for funding your education.

In conclusion, merit scholarships recognize and reward students who demonstrate exceptional academic, athletic, or artistic achievements. They can significantly reduce the cost of college education by covering tuition, room, and board expenses. Whether offered by colleges, member organizations, or private companies, each scholarship has its own application process and requirements. Starting early, staying organized, and maintaining academic excellence can enhance your chances of securing and retaining these prestigious scholarships. Remember to consult with the financial aid office, explore all available resources, and consider alternative financing options to make your college education more affordable.

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Jaden Botros

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