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Articles / Paying for College / Do You Merit Aid?

Do You Merit Aid?

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Nov. 22, 2016

Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) outcomes will be arriving within several weeks. This is Thanksgiving week and families around the world, especially here in America, are hoping to give thanks for a generous financial aid package that will be arriving either with or shortly following the goods news of getting into a dream school. That good news can turn into disappointing news, however, if that aid package doesn't meet a family's needs.

Sometimes students are admitted to a dream college but then forced to turn the offer down due to finances. Believe it or not, those of you who come from low-income homes could be in better shape than many of your friends from middle- or higher-income brackets.

Why? Because the snazziest and most expensive colleges tend to be those with the most money to give away, but often these funds are earmarked for students from low-income families. This is the mission of so-called “need-based" financial aid.

But today, let's consider so-called merit aid (also called “scholarships"). How does that work? More appropriately, how can you apply for it?

My College Confidential colleague, Sally Rubenstone, writes CC's Ask the Dean column. She answers questions from students from around the globe about even the most complicated college admissions issues. If you have any questions about what can be a very confusing and frustrating process, please feel free to send your questions to Sally.

As I was reading through some advice Sally gave to a high school senior about merit aid, I thought it was wisdom worthy to share here on Admit This!. So, here it is:

Question: Many schools have merit-based scholarships. Am I automatically considered for them once I apply or do I have to submit a separate application?

Sally sez: In MOST cases, applicants are considered for merit money WITHOUT a separate application. But some colleges take a “mix-and-match" approach. That is, they do not require an application for the majority of their merit awards but may have a demanding, pain-in-the-neck application for one or two huge scholarships that are extremely competitive.
Each applicant should read about their target colleges' merit opportunities on the schools' Web pages to see what is offered and whether it's necessary to apply separately (and if there is a special early deadline for merit aid). Unfortunately, finding this information can be something of a treasure hunt. Sometimes the info is on the Financial Aid site and sometimes it's on the Admissions pages. The best way to find it can often be to do a separate Google search for “Drexel University+Merit Scholarships," etc.
As you do your own research, here's what you will find …
-Macaulay Honors, as you know I'm sure, does have its own application.
-Smith College has very few merit scholarships but there is NOT a separate application for any of them. All applicants are automatically considered.
-Drexel U. also automatically considers ALL applicants and doesn't require a separate application. You should get a nice merit award here.
-NYU has no separate application for merit money either but be aware that NYU has very few merit awards and is stingy with need-based aid as well.
-U. of Pennsylvania has NO merit money at all, but good need-based aid.
-You can read about the SUNY Stony Brook scholarships here. Theirs is the classic mix-and-match approach. You will automatically be considered for the big Presidential and Provost's scholarships but the Honors College (which has Honors scholarships) requires a separate application.
The further you are willing to go away from [in this case] NYC and the more broad-minded you can be about your college list (e.g., considering places that you may not be familiar with), the better your chances of getting merit bucks. While colleges use merit money primarily to attract students with high grades and test scores, they also use it for “diversity" purposes. Although you have been told (by ME, among others) that being Asian can be a strike against you at most of the top Northeastern colleges that are flooded with applicants from amazing Asian students, if you are willing to go further afield, then being Chinese can actually be a plus.
For instance, three prestigious southern universities, Tulane in New Orleans, University of Miami, and Wake Forest in North Carolina, are eager to recruit more Asian students. All have big scholarships that require a separate application as well as some quite good ones that don't. In some cases (such as at Tulane and Miami) the biggest merit scholarships require not only a separate application but also an Early Action (non-binding) application. Some of the other colleges that require a non-binding early application for the biggest merit bucks include Boston University, Boston College, Notre Dame, Villanova, and more. I wish there was an easy answer to your question, but–like so many other aspects of the admissions process—there is little consistency, so you just have to research each college individually to make sure that you're following all the confusing rules!
Speaking of financial aid in general, aside from Sally's info, here is a list of resources for you to explore:

– Check out FastWeb for scholarship ideas.

Here's the link: www.fastweb.com

This is a no-cost way to access information about private scholarships for which you may be eligible. The online questionnaire takes about 10 or 15 minutes to complete. You'll find that the majority of resulting scholarships tend to be in the $500 to $1,000 range, though there are some big ones on the list, too. Needless to say, the greater the award, the more competition you'll face. Keep in mind, however, that in most cases, the best financial aid comes from colleges themselves in the form of need-based or merit-based grants.

Once you fill out the FastWeb questionnaire, you will receive periodic email updates about new scholarships and reminders about upcoming deadlines. FastWeb is free and completely legitimate, so fill out that questionnaire now!

– Look for merit-aid colleges.

The Web site www.meritaid.com is another place to look for money, particularly for lists of colleges where you are likely to qualify for merit aid. Merit aid is money that comes right from the colleges and is usually based on academic strength and typically not tied to financial need. If you don't have official SAT scores yet, I suggest that you hold off on using these scholarship-search sites until you do.

– Use the College Board Matchmaker at to find colleges that match your preferences for size, location, majors, extracurriculars, etc. Follow up on unfamiliar colleges that this search engine generates by reading their profiles, visiting their Web sites, and checking them out in one of the anecdotal guides named above. The College Board site also provides a very helpful roundup of info about each college–everything from size to majors offered to cost, average test scores, etc., all in one handy place. It can take hours to find that kind of stuff on individual college Web sites.

– Check out College Confidential's SuperMatch.

SuperMatch allows you to state the strength of you preference and doesn't rule out every college that doesn't meet it. For instance, if you say that you want an urban campus, but there's a rural one that meets every single one of your other preferences, SuperMatch won't automatically delete that college from your “Results" list, but it will tell you that it's not a 100% match, and why.

This can be very helpful since most of us don't really know what we truly want when we're 17. The other plus of SuperMatch is that it allows you to search in some “subjective" categories. For instance, on SuperMatch—unlike on the College Board Matchmaker—you can look for party schools or non-party schools, for liberal campuses, great college towns, and other categories.

– Check out the College Confidential discussion forum for general admissions information as well as for threads that are dedicated to specific colleges. As with all reader-generated content, don't expect everything to be 100 percent accurate!

Also, don't be shy about talking to anyone you respect about their college knowledge. Chat with current seniors, favorite teachers, parents of your friends, etc. to see if they might put schools on your radar screen that weren't there before. The more open-minded you can be, the better your chances of finding a great — affordable — fit become.


Check College Confidential for all of my college-related articles

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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