All articles

What are Merit Based Scholarships & Merit Aid?

a boy works on homework


Among the many ways to pay for college, merit-based scholarships and merit-based aid are some of the most gratifying. And they're free money that will help make college more affordable. So you definitely want to earn this type of aid if you can.  

In short, merit-based scholarships are financial awards granted to students based on their performance in academics, athletics, or other extracurricular endeavors. They’re a great choice for students with particular gifts or those who have worked hard throughout high school. 

Below, we provide an overview of merit aid and take a deep dive into merit-based scholarships — expanding on the question “What are merit-based scholarships?” to give you a better idea of how to earn one. With answers from our college expert Mark Kantrowitz, this guide is a great starting point for securing merit-based aid that can change your college career for the better. 

What is a Merit Scholarship?

What is a merit-based scholarship? As the name suggests, a merit-based scholarship is a financial award granted to a student based on his or her performance in academics, athletics, or other extracurricular endeavors. 

Unlike need-based scholarships, which are granted based on a household’s demonstrable financial need, merit-based scholarships are awarded based on your performance in high school. 

With a merit-based scholarship, it’s your performance that matters — and that’s something you can control. For instance, you may be awarded a merit scholarship based on your SAT or ACT score, your GPA, an essay you submitted for a particular scholarship, or your athletic performance in high school.

In addition to merit-based scholarships awarded based on performance in high school, many colleges also awarded merit-based scholarships to current students. In short, if you continue to perform well at the next level, there may be more funding in store for you. 

Types of Merit-Based Scholarships

We’ve answered the question, “what is merit aid?” Now, it’s time to take a look at the types of merit-based scholarships commonly awarded.

First up are academic scholarships. These are awarded to students who have displayed academic excellence in the form of high GPAs, high test scores, or remarkable course loads (such as AP Scholars With Distinction). One popular award in this category is the National Merit Scholarship Program that's tied to the PSAT test. 

Next up are athletic scholarships. These are awarded to students who have displayed athletic excellence that colleges will use at the next level. Students awarded athletic scholarships must participate in relevant college athletics to maintain their scholarships. 

Another common type of merit aid is arts scholarships. These are awarded to students who have displayed an extraordinary aptitude for a certain type of art. Depending on the school, arts scholarships can be awarded in genres including music, visual art, photography, film, sculpture, dance, and more. 

Yet another common type of merit aid is special interest scholarships. These are awarded to students who have displayed excellence in a pursuit other than arts, academics, or athletics. Often, these scholarships are awarded to those who have given back to their communities through extraordinary volunteer efforts. They can also be awarded to student entrepreneurs, as well as those with remarkable hobbies. 

Rounding out our list are other merit-based scholarships. These scholarships can vary widely from school to school, though they most often involve ultra-specific application requirements. Many require students to submit an essay or other body of work on a certain topic, while some may even require students to enter a school-sanctioned competition. 


Find scholarships made specifically for you

Search scholarships that are offered for your demographic and the unique communities you belong to. 


Common Questions About Merit Aid

Have questions about merit-based aid? We have answers. Read on to learn more about the benefits of merit awards, where they’re offered, how they work, and how you can earn them.

What Are the Benefits of Merit Aid?

As you can imagine, there are multiple benefits of merit aid and merit-based scholarships for students. The first and most and most obvious is funding. Merit-based scholarships can range from a few hundred dollars awarded once, to a full-ride scholarship with a stipend. In some cases, they’re icing on the cake. In others, they’re nothing short of life-changing. Of course, there are also thousands of merit-based scholarships that fall somewhere in between.

When we say “thousands,” we’re not exaggerating. In fact, we’re understating. Between schools themselves and third-party organizations, there are tens of thousands of merit-based scholarships available to students each year. With those numbers, the odds of you earning a merit-based scholarship are pretty good.

In fact, data from U.S. News & World Report showed that the average merit award to full-time undergraduates was $12,088 in the 2022-2023 academic year. 

As we’ve touched on above, a final benefit of merit-based aid is that it puts you in control. This type of aid is based on your performance, and your performance is based on your habits, work ethic, interests, and drive to succeed. If you want to secure merit-based aid, you have the power to do so.

Are There Any Schools That Do Not Offer Merit Aid?

Not all colleges and universities offer merit aid. Most notably, Ivy League schools and the nation’s most elite liberal arts institutions do not offer merit aid.

So, why do some of the best colleges and universities in the world not offer merit-based aid? In essence, because all (or many) of their accepted applicants would earn it. Instead, these schools focus on need-based aid to make education affordable for qualified students whose families may not be able to pay the cost of tuition.

If you’re looking to apply to one of these schools and you are interested in receiving a scholarship, we suggest starting with need-based avenues by filling out FAFSA. If you don’t anticipate that funding to be adequate, we suggest looking for merit-based scholarships through third-party organizations.

Can you explain Merit Scholarships vs. Merit Aid? 

You may be wondering about the difference between “merit-based scholarship” and “merit aid.” These two terms are used interchangeably and mean the same thing. (The key word is merit, which indicates the importance of your performance in earning the scholarship or aid.)

How Exactly Does Merit Aid Work?

There are two types of merit aid. Merit aid includes grants awarded by individual colleges and private scholarships awarded by independent foundations, corporations, and philanthropists.

Colleges and universities award grants that are based on merit instead of financial need as a recruiting tool. For example, about 300 colleges offer full-tuition academic scholarships to attract students with high admissions test scores.

Some colleges offer non-need-based scholarships to attract full-pay students who can afford to pay the full cost of attendance even if they got no financial aid. Even with the merit aid as a discount on tuition, the college will still net more money from the full-pay student than from several low-income students.

Merit aid funding is limited. Scholarship providers receive more qualified applications each year than they have money available. Each scholarship provider is searching for the student who best matches the provider’s selection criteria. So, depth matters more than breadth.

Are There Stipulations Around Receiving Merit Aid? 

Merit aid is based on your performance — both before and after you receive your scholarship. In other words, almost all merit scholarships require you to meet certain requirements in college in order to keep your scholarship. 

For instance, students on academic scholarships are typically required to maintain a certain GPA. (Those with more specialized academic scholarships may also be required to enroll in and successfully complete certain courses.) Those with athletic scholarships must participate on the school’s team, and failure to do so will result in a loss of scholarship. (Student-athletes are also often required to meet a baseline GPA.) 

Other types of merit-based scholarships will have other stipulations for students to meet in order to continue receiving funding. Many third-party scholarships require students to complete projects, submit updates, participate in their communities, or attend organization-planned events. Before applying to any of these scholarships, it’s important to know exactly what is required of you so you don’t lose what you’ve worked so hard to earn.

How Do You Apply for Merit Aid?

To apply for merit aid from a college or university, ask the college’s admissions office. Often, the application for admission is also used to determine eligibility for the college’s merit aid. In some cases, though, a separate application will be required.

To apply for a private scholarship, obtain the scholarship application from the website of the scholarship sponsor. 

Find Merit Aid & Scholarships Now

Now that you have a solid understanding of merit scholarships and how to earn them, it’s time to find the right ones for you. At Appily, we’re here to help. Browse scholarships right here on our site, and sign up to apply for scholarships with our award-winning platform.



Here's the easiest scholarship you'll apply to

Earn $1,000 toward college by applying to the Appily Easy Money Scholarship. No GPA or essay required. Create an account and you'll be entered to win.

Create a free Appily account to find, finance, and attend the college that's right for you Get Started Now