Scholarships •

October 28, 2022

What's a merit scholarship and how do I apply?

Merit scholarships are awarded to students based on outstanding achievement in academics, athletics, or other special skill sets. Here’s how to qualify.

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The cost of a college education is getting more and more expensive. So, it’s normal to worry about how to pay for it.

It’s not ideal to leave school with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, but that seems to be the case for many students.

Luckily, there are other options. 

Scholarships and grants make up about 25% of funding for the average college student. And one of the best parts is that with literally hundreds of thousands of scholarships out there, there’s sure to be one you qualify for.

But we also can’t deny that the process of finding scholarships can be daunting, and having resources to help you along the way can make a huge difference.

There are many types of scholarships available. Some are based on your finances, but others are based entirely on merit––like your grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities. 

We’ll cover exactly what a merit scholarship is and how it differs from a need-based scholarship. Then, we’ll walk you through how to find ones you qualify for and how to apply.

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What is a merit scholarship?

If you’ve demonstrated academic or athletic achievement, leadership, or community service during your high school years, you can find a merit scholarship to help you pay for college.

Scholarships, like grants, are a form of free aid. In other words, you don’t have to pay it back when you graduate—unlike student loans.

A merit scholarship is a form of financial aid that’s awarded based on achievement. 

Merit scholarships can be based on many different types of achievement, including:

  • Academics: It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that there are plenty of merit scholarships available for academic excellence. These scholarships are typically awarded to students with a high grade point average (GPA) or exceptional test scores. 

  • Athletics: Many universities give scholarships to those with outstanding athletic skills if they come to play on their school’s team. There are also private organizations that award scholarships for athletic achievement.

  • Arts: Students with particular artistic or musical talent can find scholarships specifically tailored to them. These scholarships are often designed for a particular type of artist and require a portfolio of work to apply.

  • Community service: If you play an active role in your community, or have significant volunteer experience, you can find scholarships to reward you for your service to your community. 

  • Leadership: There are scholarships available to students who have shown leadership abilities by serving in student government, as the captain of a team, or in another leadership role.

  • Area of study: Many schools and organizations award scholarships to students pursuing a specific type of degree. For example, if you’re going to school to become a teacher, you can find scholarships specifically for aspiring teachers.

Types of Merit Scholarships

Merit vs. need-based scholarships

A merit-based scholarship is based entirely on personal achievement. Whether you’re eligible has nothing to do with your financial situation. 

On the other hand, need-based scholarships are for students who need financial support for college and have a FAFSA that demonstrates that need. 

Merit vs

The most well-known need-based aid program is the federal Pell Grant. But there are also plenty of universities and private organizations that offer scholarships to those who come from low and middle-income families.

Depending on your situation, you might find that you’re eligible for both merit and need-based scholarships. No matter what, remember: the worst you can hear is no, so it’s always worth applying if you qualify.

Types of merit-based scholarships

There are many types of merit-based scholarships available. You can apply for scholarships from your school, non-profits, local businesses––even your parents’ employers. 

Merit Scholarships

Merit scholarships from schools

When you apply for college, you aren’t just competing with other students for the best schools. The best schools are also competing against one another for the best students. 

And one of the ways that schools do that is by offering merit scholarships and other types of financial aid to current and prospective students. 

Some merit-based aid from schools is awarded automatically when your application is accepted, while other scholarships require you to apply.

In general, private schools offer more merit-based scholarships—also known as tuition discounts—than public schools.

Private merit scholarships

Tens of thousands of private organizations provide merit-based scholarships to students at various levels of education—everything from undergraduate to PhD programs. 

It’s impossible to overstate just how widely available these scholarships are—everything from small businesses to local non-profit organizations to global corporations offer financial aid to promising students.

Many local businesses and organizations offer merit-based scholarships to high-achieving local students. Your local community foundation is a great place to start looking for scholarships. 

National organizations may offer scholarships to members or children of members. 

Finally, large organizations and companies like Coca-Cola offer scholarships to students who have met high academic standards.

What do merit-based scholarships pay for?

The cost of college includes far more than the tuition. In fact, tuition itself often makes up less than half of your total bill for the academic year. As you apply for merit-based scholarships, it’s important to know upfront what they pay for.

First, how your scholarship money is applied depends on who sponsored it. 

If you receive a merit-based award from your school, it’ll be applied directly to your tuition before you see the bill. 

Similarly, other organizations may send the scholarship money directly to the school to apply to your bill. 

Often, these scholarships are limited to expenses paid to the school, which can include tuition, fees, and room and board. Sometimes, you can only use the scholarship to pay tuition, which means if your tuition is already covered, you can’t use the money. 

In that case, it’s a good idea to apply to scholarships from other organizations that send the scholarship money directly to students via check or direct deposit. 

When the money is sent directly to you, you can also often use these scholarship dollars for personal living expenses like rent, food, and supplies.

As you apply for scholarships, read the fine print to find mention of limitations on what you can spend the money on. If a scholarship sponsor requires that you spend the money on educational expenses only, it will likely state as much.

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How to find merit scholarships that I’m eligible for

With literally hundreds of thousands of scholarships available out there, you’re sure to be eligible for one. The problem is finding the right ones for you. And with so many to choose from, it can feel daunting to get started at all.

Here are 5 steps you can take to get the most money possible:

How to Get Merit Scholarships

Step 1: Start early

One of the most important pieces of advice we can share is to start early when looking for scholarships. 

Many people don’t think to start applying for scholarships until they’re in their senior year of high school. 

But many scholarship programs are open to students in their sophomore and junior years as well. And the earlier you start, the more chances you have to apply and land scholarships.

Imagine if you could start your senior year already having built a savings account of scholarship money. You could better plan your finances for school and have more peace of mind that you wouldn’t be relying on student loan debt.

Step 2: Contact your school

Once you’ve been accepted to a university, contact the financial aid office and ask what scholarships are available. 

If you’ve been accepted to multiple schools, you can even compare scholarship opportunities between them and factor that into your decision when choosing a school.

If you’re a high achieving student, you can use your academic achievement as leverage to get scholarships. 

Let your school’s financial aid office know that you’d love to attend their school but that you need to make a choice that’s financially smart for you and your family. 

Schools want to attract the best students, so they might be willing to offer extra merit scholarships to get you to attend their institution.

Step 3: Reach out to local organizations

Chances are that local businesses and community foundations near you offer scholarships for local students. Look at the websites of local groups, or even contact them directly.

You can also check with your high school guidance counselor. Many compile lists of local scholarships that students can apply for.

Step 4: Search for scholarships on Mos 

Mos has a database of thousands of scholarships that’s easy to search. 

Instead of being constantly shown scholarships that aren’t a match, you can share information about yourself with Mos and Mos will show you scholarships that are a good fit. 

With a simple Google search, you’ll be left to sift through thousands of results, many of which won’t be right for you or even exist anymore. Mos’s targeted approach ensures you aren’t wasting your time.

When you sign up for Mos, you get access to thousands of scholarships for Mos to match you with, plus scholarship drops with hundreds of new scholarship opportunities. 

Mos will identify the ones that are the best fit, so you don’t have to filter through them all yourself.

What do I do if I’m not eligible for any merit scholarships?

You might find yourself worried that you won’t qualify for any merit scholarships, especially if you don’t have a high GPA or haven’t had any outstanding achievements during your high school years.

It’s true that most great scholarships have a large pool of applicants. And with an average GPA, it can be difficult to compete. But, no matter what your unique skill set, there’s guaranteed to be a scholarship to match it.

Here are just a few examples of unique scholarship opportunities available to students willing to think outside the box:

For more information on niche scholarships you can qualify for, check out this article. 

How do I apply for merit-based scholarships?

Each merit-based scholarship is sponsored by a different organization and comes with different eligibility requirements. 

As a result, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for applying for them. But, here are a few general steps to follow:

  • Read the eligibility requirements: The last thing you want is to spend hours applying to scholarships you aren’t eligible for. Be sure to read the eligibility requirements for each scholarship to make sure you aren’t wasting your time.

  • Complete all the application steps: Scholarships can be competitive, and skipping any steps in the application is a surefire way to make sure you don’t win. Read the application carefully to make sure you do every step.

  • Have someone read your essay: For many scholarships, the essay is the most important part of the application. Make sure to have someone proofread your essay before you submit it or use a tool like Grammarly to self-check.

  • Complete the application by the deadline: It’s super important that you submit each scholarship application by the deadline. We recommend submitting as early as possible since some scholarship providers only accept a certain number of applications! 

  • Learn how to keep your scholarships: Some scholarships are renewable, meaning you can get the money each year you attend college. Usually, you have to meet certain requirements––maintaining a certain GPA, for example––so make sure you know what those are in advance. 

How to Apply For Merit Scholarships


Merit scholarships are a great way to supplement your government and school financial aid. Finding and applying to them can be time-consuming, but that’s often a better alternative than working off a student loan. 

There are hundreds of thousands of scholarships out there, and eligibility spans any type of merit you can think of, from academics to athletics and everything in between. If you have a special skill set or achievement, there’s a good chance there’s a merit scholarship for it.

Mos makes it easy to find the best financial aid and scholarship opportunities for you. Sign up today to get started.

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