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What Is Merit College Aid and How Do Get It?

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Graphic on grey background of college building, money, mortar board and other items associated with scholarship money.

One way to win scholarships is to go online to a scholarship search site and apply for every scholarship under the sun. But while an online scholarship search is often a worthwhile endeavor, there’s a far more lucrative source of college funding: the colleges themselves.

Colleges have a lot of money to give away, and you can approach your college search process strategically to maximize your chances of getting some.

What Are Merit Scholarships?

In order to win college merit scholarships, you first need to understand what they are – specifically, what they are to the colleges that award them. While students and parents tend to view a merit scholarship as a reward – a nice congratulations on a job well done in high school – from the college’s perspective, a scholarship is not a reward. Colleges are not offering you a scholarship to reward you for what you’ve done in the past. They’re trying to influence what you’ll do in the future, specifically, where you’ll enroll in school.

A merit scholarship is not a reward, but a recruitment tool. Colleges use scholarships to entice the students they want most.

How Do You Win a Merit Scholarship?

So how do you win scholarships? Apply to colleges where you will be a particularly attractive student, to schools that will want to entice you to enroll. Don’t only apply to colleges where every applicant is just as strong a student as you are, or stronger. What incentive do those colleges have to offer you money? If you choose not to enroll, they have a line of students a mile long with your same credentials waiting to fill the spot. They don’t need you.

An A-student applying to an Ivy League college is in this position. Almost all students who apply to these highly selective schools are A-students. How on earth do you stand out from the crowd? But an A-student applying to a college where most applicants are B-students? Now that’s a hot commodity! A B-student applying to a school with more C-level applicants is in a similarly favorable position.

Apply to colleges where your grades and test scores – whatever they may be – are above average, and you are likely to see some generous scholarship offers.

How Do You Stand Out From Other College Applications?

While academic achievement is the most common reason your application may stand out , and is certainly the easiest factor to measure, there may be other reasons you might be a particularly attractive candidate at any given school. It could be athletic or artistic ability. It could be legacy status or your application to a less popular academic program. Maybe you’re a Jewish student from New York applying to a small Catholic school in the Midwest, or you’re a young man applying to a formerly all-women’s college, both of which are trying to expand the diversity of their campuses. Thinking outside the box in terms of your college choices – beyond the colleges where half of your high school is applying – can maximize your chances of standing out from the crowd, and, therefore, maximize your chances of winning a scholarship.

How Do You Know If Colleges Offer Scholarships?

To find out what merit scholarships a college offers, look at the website. Some colleges break down very specific academic criteria for each scholarship that they offer on their websites, so you will know up front if you qualify. Other college websites are less helpful, and only speak vaguely, if at all, to their scholarship qualifications. You can still get a general sense of whether or not you’re likely to be offered a merit scholarship by a particular college by checking out the academic profile of their incoming class on a website like www.bigfuture.org.

Colleges where your grades and standardized test scores are well above average are most likely to try to recruit you with scholarship funding. Colleges where, if admitted, you will rank below an average student are unlikely to show you the money.

How Do You Apply For Merit Scholarships?

There is usually nothing to submit beyond your application for admission. Most colleges will automatically consider all applicants for scholarships, and will offer funding to the students they most want to recruit. Occasionally, however, a college might have a specific scholarship application that you need to fill out, or, rarely, they may require a need-based financial aid application be submitted, so pay attention to any requirements listed on the college’s website.

Also, watch for priority application deadlines. While you may not need to submit a separate scholarship application, a college may require you to apply for admission by an earlier deadline if you want to be considered for the honors program or any merit scholarships.

Are Scholarships Negotiable?

Finally, once you have your college acceptances and scholarship awards laid out in front of you, know that a college’s first offer is not necessarily the final offer. Remember that receipt of a merit scholarship, particularly a substantial one, is a good sign that that college is very interested in recruiting you. If you make that college aware that another school is trying to entice you with more money, they may be willing to increase their initial offer in order to remain competitive.

It never hurts to ask if more funding might be available. A college may say no, but that’s the worst that will happen. And you may be surprised at how often colleges say yes and are willing to negotiate a scholarship offer if they think a few thousand more dollars will increase your likelihood of enrolling. Be strategic about your college list and unafraid to ask for more, and you are likely to see significant scholarship money heading your way.

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