By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

So you’ve determined your Estimated Family Contribution (we hope our free EFC calculator was helpful) and submitted your FAFSA (we hope Eat Your Alphabet Soup: FAFSA, EFC, COA, and Other Delights made the process less murky). The colleges that interest you have crunched the numbers and reached their verdict, and it wasn’t the one you wanted. Apparently you are too prosperous to qualify for as much need-based financial aid as you had hoped, perhaps not for any at all. That’s where merit scholarships enter the picture.

A merit scholarship is just what the name implies, a financial award based on demonstrated achievements and distinctions. Some of them are comprehensive, but most are partial scholarships that come in awfully handy for filling the gap between your out-of-pocket costs and what need-based aid you’re able to obtain. Some are offered by the institutions themselves (U.S. News reports that 14 percent of students receive merit-based institutional aid) while others originate with outside donors such as civic clubs, foundations, activist groups, labor unions, charitable organizations, business and professional associations, and academic honoraries, to name a few.

“Merit” is of course a highly elastic term, the meaning of which varies greatly by context. Here are a few ideas about where you might apply your achievements and attributes to the scholarship quest:



The usual suspects

No surprise here: In the realm of merit scholarships, smart sells. Or smarts sell. So work that brain till the cells smart. GPA, class rank, test scores—in other words the bog-standard measures of academic acumen—are what you need. Bear in mind that many scholarships depend on the maintenance of a certain GPA once you are enrolled in college, as we discussed in Not So Fast, Part 2: Why Scholarships Get Taken Away.  

Community service

Admissions officers pay close attention to the quality and quantity of applicants’ community service activities, and the recommendations we offered in The Why, When, and How Much of Community Service are applicable for merit scholarships as well as admissions. Many of the  organizations most involved in community service provide merit scholarships at the national, regional, state, or local level, or some combination of levels, to students who can demonstrate the suitable amount and type of participation.


what are merit scholarships
A leadership position can work wonders, especially if you combine it with something sporty.

Even more important than community service in and of itself is leadership in community service—or nearly anything else reasonably sane and decent. Student government offices, officerships in clubs and activities, athletic captaincies, and a demonstrated willingness and ability to organize activities and people can give you the marks of distinction that identify you as worthy of a merit scholarship.

Forensics and the arts

what are merit scholarships

Speech and debate, painting, drawing, drama, dance, music, and other talents in the fine and performing arts offer some of the most abundant opportunities for the acquisition of merit scholarships. Whether it’s a matter of your major or just a part of your extracurricular resume, demonstrated talent in this arena can give your financial aid prospects a significant boost.


Athletic scholarships in general could be classified as a type of merit scholarship, but in the present context we’re thinking mainly of sports as a component of an extracurricular resume that helps establish you as an all-rounder and an asset to the new freshman class. As we’ve explained in our many articles about athletic scholarships (see especially The “How Many” and “How Much” of Athletic Scholarships and The “How To” of Athletic Scholarships Explained), even colleges that don’t offer athletic scholarships—such as NCAA Division III schools, and the Ivies—take sports into account in deciding on the meritoriousness of applicants. Athletic activities that are not part of the usual school sports program can be a valuable source of funds, if you know where to look, as we explained in Ten Unusual Athletic Scholarships.

Demographics and parental matters

Just being of a particular gender or sexual persuasion or ethnic group or station in life—for example, if you’re a first-generation college student—probably won’t be enough, but if you can associate it with some of the other qualities discussed here, it could be your ticket to a merit scholarship. The same is true with organizations to which your parents belong, such as labor unions, professional associations, civic groups, and fraternal organizations.

And the best-known of all merit scholarships…


Yes, that’s Gonzaga’s own Bing Crosby crooning a show tune that does double duty as the University of South Carolina fight song (with lyrics suitably rewritten by football coach Paul Dietzel half a century ago). You, too, will feel like singing and dancing and eating celebratory cake if you can win a National Merit Scholarship, which is probably the most prestigious merit scholarship and which depends on scoring at the elite level on the PSAT/NMSQT as well as an extensive application process that includes an essay and an evaluation of overall skills and accomplishments. About 8,000 Finalists receive scholarship awards each year, out of an initial pool of 1.5 million entrants.

The examples above are really just scratching the surface. To see what can happen if you think outside the box just a bit, have a look at The Odds Are Good But the Goods Are Odd: 16 Unusual Scholarships and Part 2: The Odds Are Good But the Goods Are Odd: 10 More Unusual Scholarships.

Whether you’re seeking a merit scholarship or some other type of aid, The Coaching Educator has the experience and the tools to help you mine the gold.

We’ve spent a decade learning where to look and how to extract the goodies. Essay writing is a prominent part of the process, and we’re proud of our essay-coaching program based on the Oxford tutorial system. The finished product will be your own work, but it will be your own work at its very best. 

To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Photos: Bucknell University

Recommended Reading About College Admissions and Scholarships

Culp, Paul. “An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much,” The Coaching Educator, http://tce.local/2018/09/06/an-arm-and-a-leg-and-your-first-born-child-why-college-costs-so-much/

Culp, Paul. “Eat Your Alphabet Soup: FAFSA, EFC, COA, and Other Delights,” The Coaching Educator, 6 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/06/eat-your-alphabet-soup-fafsa-efc-coa-and-other-delights/

Culp, Paul. “The ‘How Many’ and ‘How Much’ of Athletic Scholarships,” The Coaching Educator, 18 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/18/the-how-many-and-how-much-of-athletic-scholarships/

Culp, Paul. “The ‘How To’ of Athletic Scholarships Explained,” The Coaching Educator, 24 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/24/the-how-to-of-athletic-scholarships-explained/

Culp, Paul. “Not So Fast, Part 2: Why Scholarships Get Taken Away,” The Coaching Educator, 20 February 2019, http://tce.local/2019/02/20/not-so-fast-part-ii-why-scholarships-get-taken-away/

Culp, Paul. “The Odds Are Good But the Goods Are Odd: 16 Unusual Scholarships,” The Coaching Educator, http://tce.local/2018/10/12/the-odds-are-good-but-the-goods-are-odd-16-unusual-scholarships/

Culp, Paul “Part 2: The Odds Are Good But the Goods Are Odd: 10 More Unusual Scholarships,” The Coaching Educator, http://tce.local/2019/03/20/part-2-the-odds-are-good-but-the-goods-are-odd-10-more-unusual-scholarships/

Culp, Paul. “Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for Scholarships,” The Coaching Educator, http://tce.local/2019/02/06/ten-common-mistakes-you-must-avoid-in-applying-for-scholarships/

Culp, Paul. “Types of Financial Aid: A Very Short Primer,” The Coaching Educator, 14 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/14/types-of-financial-aid-a-very-short-primer/

Culp, Paul. “The Why, When, and How Much of Community Service,” The Coaching Educator, 22 January 2019, http://tce.local/2019/01/22/the-why-when-and-how-much-of-community-service/

Support smart students and spread the word:
Follow us on: