Due to the rising cost of college, many students are rightfully concerned about meeting the high cost of tuition and accompanying living expenses during their college years. Although parents and students save over many years to meet college expenses, those savings frequently fall short of paying the entire tab for four years of undergraduate studies. Students whose savings can not meet their college costs are left to figure out how to fill the gap between their savings and what they need to afford college. Of course, student loans are always an option, but Pam Ohriner, the top college counselor at Helping Hand College Guidance, believes that taking student loans should always be a last option. Loans can put a financial strain on a new college graduate, so why not look to secure merit aid first?
What is merit aid? Unlike aid based on financial need, merit aid is awarded based on academic performance and promise, athletic ability, and other talents and attributes that a particular university seeks for its institution. Thus, merit aid can help students who would not qualify for need-based aid. Many schools offering merit aid will automatically review a student’s qualifications with their general application. However, other colleges and universities will have a separate application to fill out with a possible essay. It is essential to check the school’s website for the due dates on merit applications and any supporting documents they may require. It’s important to remember that, in general, Ivy League schools and some other selective schools do not award merit aid, although they do meet financial needs.
For merit aid based on academic achievement, schools generally consider GPA and standardized test scores (SAT/ACT). College counselor Pam Ohriner thinks this is a solid reason to take the SAT/ACT, even if schools are test-optional. A good score can open the door to possibly receiving merit aid. These scholarships can vary in size from full-ride to partial scholarships, with some being one-time only and others renewable for all four years of undergraduate study. With renewable yearly scholarships, many have stipulations requiring a student to achieve a specific GPA to maintain their scholarship in subsequent years. Students who fall short of the required GPA will likely forfeit their scholarship.
There are also external organizations that offer merit scholarships. These scholarships are often tied to demographics, areas of interest (major selected), talents, and ethnicity. In general, these applications are extremely specialized. Some of these applications are relatively quick, while others are more time-consuming. It is important to remember that colleges award a far more significant amount of merit money than external organizations when planning a student’s time commitment to writing college applications.
Here are some strategy tips when looking to secure merit aid:
- Select colleges where you are likely to be one of their top applicants. You will want to look for colleges where your grades and test scores are in their top 25 percentile. Make sure to include some safety and target schools in your college list. The Fiske Guide to Colleges 2024 by Edward Fiske is a good source for this information. Essentially, you will be measured against the college’s applicant pool.
- Research schools that are more likely to be generous with merit aid. Try to include a few of these schools in your college list. An excellent source for finding this information is the US. News and World Report, where some of the schools listed having large percentages of their students receiving merit aid include Santa Clara University (36%), Loyola Marymount University (46%), Southern Methodist University (40%), and Syracuse University (37%).
- Fill out the FAFSA even if you believe you will not qualify for need-based aid.
- Ensure you understand the terms for receiving and keeping merit aid before making a final college decision.
- When comparing the costs of different colleges in making a final decision, consider the overall cost of attendance when considering the financial impact of receiving merit aid.
- Submit your application as early as possible for consideration. If appropriate, file your application “early action.” You will have the benefit of receiving an admission decision earlier.
- If you are applying for external scholarships, a better use of time and energy is strategically selecting scholarships that focus on your talents and interests, apply to your local area, and have more involved applications that are likely to attract fewer applicants.
- Make sure to take the PSAT to be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship program (if qualified), which awards millions in aid to finalists and semifinalists.
- Geography can be an advantage when applying to schools looking for geographic diversity.
- Private colleges are more likely to be generous with merit aid than public colleges.
- The average amount of merit money awarded can vary yearly based on a college’s finances and overall economic conditions.
Lastly, a college’s offer of merit money may not be final, and it is still possible to appeal for additional funds. Suppose you need more than the award to meet your expenses. In that case, college counselor Pam Ohriner recommends filing an appeal explaining and documenting why you need additional funds to accept their admission offer. Support your appeal with receipts, bank statements, tax statements, or other documents backing your case. Also, if you have additional favorable test scores or a rising GPA, I would submit them. Although it is not guaranteed, you may be lucky and receive the money you need! After all, the college has already decided they want you as a student.
Pam Ohriner, top college counselor at Helping Hand College Guidance, specializes in all facets of the college application process for first-year students, transfer, and international applicants. For further questions or a complimentary half-hour consultation, please email Pam or call 310-733-8433.