Merit scholarships can be one of the best ways to pay for college, especially if your family will not qualify for need-based aid. It is important to know the different types and sources of merit-based scholarships available.

Just to be clear, a merit-based scholarship is “free” money offered based on something other than financial need. These scholarships are based on some type of “merit” a student has. “Merit” really refers to a student’s qualities or statistics and can be a combination of several things. Later, we talk more about this under the types of merit scholarships. I’d first like to talk about the sources.

Sources for Merit-Based Scholarships

There are 3 sources of merit-based scholarships: Colleges, State Programs, and Private Sources. Let’s walk through each one. 

College Merit-Based Scholarships  

The majority of merit scholarships come directly from colleges. Colleges offer these scholarships to attract students, especially top students. They offer merit-based scholarships in amounts ranging from hundreds of dollars up to the full cost of college plus extras. 

Most colleges share these merit scholarship opportunities on their websites, although sometimes the amounts are not disclosed. They offer several different types of merit scholarships, and we’ll cover those in the “types” section below. 

Please know, there are some colleges that do not offer any merit scholarships. To know if your student’s top school(s) offer any merit-based aid, I have kept a running list since 2014. Currently, it currently contains 37 colleges. This would include all Ivy League colleges, plus other schools primarily among the top-rated and most selective colleges in the U.S.

State-Funded Merit-Based Scholarships 

Many states have a variety of merit scholarship programs. These often use state lottery proceeds to fund college scholarships. Some of the largest and most known are: Big Futures (FL) granting up to full tuition, HOPE and Zel Miller Scholarships (GA), the full tuition New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, the Massachusetts Paul Tsongas Scholarship program offering full-tuition scholarships, and the Minnesota Academic Excellence program. Some quick online research can help you find any merit-based scholarships your state may offer.

Privately Sourced Merit-Based Scholarships

Privately sourced merit scholarships are primarily funded through foundations, corporations, clubs & other organizations. Private merit scholarships vary in amount from hundreds of dollars to a full ride plus extras. Additionally, private merit-based scholarships may be offered to students in a local area, in a specific state, or may be offered nationally or internationally. 

Some of the biggest private merit scholarships include the Stamps Scholars offered through partner colleges (currently 37 colleges), Coca-Cola Scholars, awarded to 150 students per year, and the Equitable Excellence Scholarship. There are also well-known large private scholarship programs that look at both financial need and merit in awarding scholarships. MyCAP includes a database of over $5.1 billion dollars in private scholarships so you can find the ones that are applicable to your student. 

Very large and well-known scholarship programs have tons of competition, making the odds of winning very low for a particular student. A student’s best bets for winning private scholarships are going to be small, local scholarship programs. Usually, the high school guidance counselor’s office will have a list of these. Local scholarships tend to be offered through local businesses, Rotary clubs, Lions clubs, Knights of Columbus, Optimists, Elks, VFW, Women’s clubs, PEO, and more.

Types of Merit-Based Scholarships

Now that we have a better handle on the sources of merit-based scholarships, let’s jump into the different types of scholarships. I’ve heard arguments that there are really only two types – automatic and competitive – but we’ll break down why there are really 5 different types of merit-based scholarships below and what they mean to your college-bound student. 

Firstly, what are the 5 types? We define the 5 types of merit-based scholarships as: Automatic, Semi-Automatic, Competitive, National Merit, and Talent-based.

Automatic and semi-automatic merit scholarships tend to be offered by colleges or states. Competitive scholarships usually come from private sectors and involve some type of competition. The last two types, National Merit/National Recognition and talent scholarships could be automatic or competitively awarded. This varies based on the school and what they are offering. (Pro tip: Use MyCAP to find all this information easily and in one place).

Automatic Merit-Based Scholarships

 Automatic merit-based scholarships are scholarships that are guaranteed to be awarded to students who meet the stated criteria. Usually, this relates to a certain GPA or combination of GPA and ACT or SAT score. Class rank may also come into play and sometimes Valedictorians and Salutatorians are automatically awarded a large scholarship. Here’s a good post to learn more about automatic merit scholarships: What Is An Automatic Merit Scholarship?

Semi-Automatic Merit-Based Scholarships

Semi-Automatic merit-based scholarships are very similar to Automatic scholarships. The biggest difference is that the school does not guarantee the student will receive the scholarship if they meet the stated criteria. You can spot a semi-automatic merit scholarship when it indicates the student “may” be awarded or is “considered” based on a specific GPA and ACT/SAT combination.

Competitive Merit-Based Scholarships

 Competitive merit-based scholarships are scholarships that a student is considered for either based directly on his or her college admission application or a separate scholarship application. This category varies widely in whether or not extra work is involved. The most competitive scholarships often involve scholarship days or weekends on campus with interviews and other activities as part of the competition. The reward for all this extra work is often very large as many of these are full tuition and full-ride scholarships.

Competitive scholarships can be just that, competitive. It’s important to know what to expect so you have a better chance of getting the award. Learn more about what competitive merit scholarships are and how your student can win one in some of our other free resources. 

National Merit or National Recognition Scholarships 

These national merit-based scholarships may be more difficult to attain, but have a big payoff in the end. 

  •  National merit scholarships are scholarships awarded based on achieving the designations related to the National Merit Scholarship Qualification Test (the PSAT). This typically includes taking the PSAT at a certain time (usually October of their Junior year of high school), getting a specific score and/or meeting other entry requirements. The requirements are posted on every year – review this information at the start of your student’s Junior year if this is something you’d like to pursue. 
  • The National Recognition Programs award academic honors to underrepresented students. These include the National African American Recognition Program, National Hispanic Recognition Program, National Indigenous Recognition Program, and National Rural and Small Town Recognition Program. 

For now, the best thing to know is that these scholarships require the student to score well on the PSAT test that is taken his or her Junior year of high school. The National Merit scholarships with the most money will require a student to score among the top 7,500 students who take the test nationwide. Additionally, only about 1/2 of these 7,500 students receive a National Merit-related scholarship. 

Remember, even if it’s not a National Merit scholarship, many colleges award scholarships to students who receive these high distinctions and qualifications. If your student falls into this category, you can search for all the available National Merit scholarships offered by colleges in MyCAP. And as always, we have more information for you. Learn more about the different sub-types of National Merit scholarships here or read A National Merit Scholarship Success Story to inspire one of your own.

Talent Merit-Based Scholarships

 Talent merit-based scholarships are scholarships based primarily on a specific talent the student has rather than his or her basic academic qualifications. The most popular areas for talent scholarships are music, art, dance, and theater. Some of the other areas that award talent scholarships include cheer, film, journalism, creative writing, forensics, debate, and speech. 

Talent scholarships awarded by colleges vary in amounts from a couple hundred dollars to a few that are full tuition or full rides. The majority of talent scholarships require the student to be majoring in the area of his or her talent. However, there are some talent scholarships awarded to students who have an interest in continuing their talent in college, but not majoring in it. Most talent scholarships require either an audition or submission of a portfolio.

Overall, merit-based scholarships typically offer a large payout in the end to your student and have proven to be one of the best ways to pay for college. You just have to know where to find the opportunities. We’ve touched on it several times, but truly the easiest and fastest way to find all of these types and sources of scholarships is to create an account in MyCAP. 

 First, you can do an Advanced School Search to find the colleges that will offer your student the best merit scholarships across all the categories explained above. We project the best automatic and semi-automatic scholarships your student will qualify for at each school. 

Then we automatically stack any applicable state merit scholarships on top of the school-based merit when this is allowed. Once you have established your list of top schools for merit scholarships, you can search our private scholarship database to find additional scholarships to apply for.

Learn more about College Aid Pro: CAP Data Update! Admissions, Scholarships, and Financial Aid