What is Merit Aid and How Do I Get Some?

Merit Aid - Grad holding money

You may have heard of merit aid, that it helps pay for college, or maybe you know it as merit scholarships. This is what you need to know about merit aid as you prep for college applications.

Colleges grant merit aid scholarships to students based on their academic or other achievements. It could be an impressive GPA, athletic skills, an artistic portfolio or any recognition of their unique abilities.

Most commonly, merit aid is awarded in the form of academic scholarships. They take into account your child’s grades, standardized test scores like the SAT and ACT, and class rank to award your student money.

The best part? It’s not awarded based on financial need, so won’t have to worry about family income or assets.

The challenging part? Not every college awards merit aid. Some colleges ONLY award need-based aid. College selection is the most important factor for families hoping to reduce their cost of college with merit aid. The colleges you choose must be ones that offer merit aid!

Standardized Test Scores Matter

Higher standardized testing scores absolutely increase the amount of merit aid a student is offered. In fact, some schools even give out guaranteed scholarships to students whose scores meet a minimum threshold.

Colleges need to have a quantitative method to score one student against another in order to determine the amount. Standardized test results are a common scoring method. Arizona State University even has a merit aid calculator right on their website.

If your student is targeting merit-based aid to help fund college, it is worth their time and energy (and money, probably) to prepare them. That way, they can get the highest score possible.

According to Great College Advice, “ [To] raise your ACT score a few points higher may mean thousands of more dollars in scholarships from certain universities. In some cases, even a single point on your ACT composite score can mean the difference between a scholarship of $5000 per year and $10,000 per year.” That’s a huge difference!

Is Merit Aid Automatic?

Every college has different financial aid rules and processes. Much to the surprise of scholarship-hunting families, merit aid isn’t always automatically applied.

Some colleges consider merit scholarships for all applications without additional requirements. Some colleges, like USC, only offer merit aid to applicants who apply before a certain date.

Other colleges, like NYU and RISD, require both the FAFSA and CSS Profile be submitted to be considered for all forms of financial aid. A few of their scholarships may blend need-based and merit aid requirements.

Additional merit scholarships are sometimes available for students willing to submit separate merit scholarships applications, such as the Barnes Scholarship at Colorado College or Johnston Scholars at the University of North Carolina. 14 scholarships through the University of Michigan require individual applications. University of Michigan, like NYU, also requires students to submit the FAFSA and CSS Profile to be considered for both merit or need-based aid.

Some Schools Don’t Offer Merit Aid

Yes, it’s true. It varies school by school, but several colleges only offer need-based aid. Tufts University, for instance, offers no merit aid or academic scholarships.

Be sure to check each college’s financial aid website to make sure your student is applying to colleges that offer awards based on YOUR financial situation. A portion of students will be awarded more financial aid for colleges granting need-based aid and the rest should be targeting colleges offering merit aid.

If your student’s SAT scores are high (compared to the college’s average), they get good marks in class, or they’re recognized for athletic achievements, merit scholarships can lessen the burden of college-related debt for those colleges awarding merit aid.

To get a jump-start on your college financial plan, sign up for a Tackling the Runaway Costs of College webinar or schedule a free consultation with Beatrice Schultz, CFP®.

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