What are merit scholarships?


Merit scholarships are financial awards granted to students based on their academic achievements and interests in specific majors or fields of study. Understanding the ins and outs of these scholarships is crucial for students looking to graduate from college, debt-free. 

In this article, we cover merit scholarship eligibility criteria, differences from financial aid, and specific guidance for students interested in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

What are Merit Scholarships?

Merit scholarships are financial awards granted to students primarily for their academic achievements and academic interests, rather than financial need or other qualifications. Universities and other organizations establish eligibility criteria for merit scholarships based on a student's GPA and standardized test scores (SAT and ACT), as well as interests in a specific major or field of study.

Eligibility Requirements for Merit Scholarships

While each university and organization may have its own set of criteria, common factors for merit scholarship eligibility often include:

  • Academic Achievement: High school GPA and standardized test scores like the SAT or ACT play a major role in determining eligibility.
  • Special Achievements: Awards and honors, whether academic or non-academic, contribute positively to a student's merit scholarship application.
  • Major or Field of Study: Certain scholarships are specific to particular majors or fields of study.
  • School or Program-Specific Requirements: Unique criteria set by the scholarship provider may include geographic location or affiliation with a particular school.

What is a good GPA for a merit scholarship?

Different scholarships have different criteria, and what is considered a "good" GPA may vary based on the following criteria:

  • Specific scholarship
  • The level of education (undergraduate or graduate)
  • The institution offering the award. 

In general, a good GPA for merit scholarships is typically above the average for the student population. Many merit scholarships have GPA requirements in the range of 3.4 to 4.0 on a 4.0 scale. However, this is a generalization, and some scholarships may have lower or higher GPA requirements.

Do colleges automatically consider you for merit scholarships?

The consideration for merit scholarships varies among colleges and universities. Some institutions automatically consider all applicants for merit scholarships ensuring that every student who applies is automatically in the running for these scholarships.

On the other hand, some colleges require a separate application or nomination process for merit scholarships. In such cases, students may need to submit additional materials or meet specific criteria beyond what is required for regular admission.

To understand the merit scholarship policies of a specific college or university, you should review the institution's scholarship information on its official website or contact the admissions office directly. Pay attention to any specific application instructions and deadlines related to merit-based financial aid. 

How do you maximize merit scholarships?

To improve your chances of getting merit scholarships, focus on keeping good grades and actively search for scholarships from your chosen college and other organizations. Combining these awards can help you receive more money towards your degree. Here are some general tips to boost your chances of getting merit scholarships:

  • Maintain a Strong GPA: Consistently strive for high academic performance. Many merit scholarships have GPA requirements, and maintaining a strong GPA increases your eligibility.
  • Excel in Standardized Tests: Some scholarships consider standardized test scores (SAT or ACT). Prepare thoroughly for these exams to achieve competitive scores.
  • Seek Out Specialized Scholarships: Look for scholarships that match your chosen field of study, career aspirations, or personal qualities. Besides merit scholarships from the university, various organizations offer scholarships tailored to specific majors, interests, and demographics.
  • Research and Apply Early: Start researching scholarship opportunities well in advance. Some scholarships have early deadlines, and applying ahead of time gives you a competitive edge.
  • Complete the FAFSA: Even though merit scholarships are not need-based, some scholarships may require FAFSA completion. Additionally, it opens up opportunities for need-based aid that may complement merit scholarships.
  • Explore Local and Community Scholarships: Don't overlook scholarships offered by local organizations, businesses, or community foundations. These may have less competition and can provide valuable financial support.

The Difference Between Merit Scholarships and Financial Aid

While both merit scholarships and financial aid help ease the financial strain of education, they vary in their criteria and purpose. Financial aid, usually based on need, takes into account a student's financial situation. On the other hand, merit scholarships aim to acknowledge and reward outstanding accomplishments, regardless of financial need.

Does FAFSA affect merit scholarships?

While FAFSA itself does not affect merit scholarships, institutions may use FAFSA data to determine eligibility for need-based scholarships. However, some scholarships may require students to complete the FAFSA to be considered for merit scholarships.

It's important for students to carefully read the eligibility criteria for each scholarship they are applying for to understand the specific requirements for the selection process.

Will scholarships affect my Pell Grant?

In most cases, the Federal Pell Grant remains unaffected, as colleges are not mandated to reduce this specific form of financial aid based on merit scholarship awards. However, a phenomenon known as scholarship displacement can occur when colleges opt to diminish a student's financial aid award by an amount equivalent to any private scholarships granted by the university.

It is noteworthy that several states have taken legislative measures to address this issue, with at least six states enacting laws that either limit or prohibit scholarship displacement. These states include Washington, California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Minnesota.

In these jurisdictions, institutions are subject to regulations that aim to safeguard students from experiencing reductions in their financial aid packages solely due to the receipt of private scholarships. Therefore, students in these regions may find added protection against the potential negative impact of scholarship displacement on their overall financial aid.

Are Pell Grants Merit-Based?

The Pell Grant, a federal financial aid program, is need-based and not merit-based. It considers factors such as the student's financial need, cost of attendance, and enrollment status, making it distinct from merit scholarships.

How to Navigate Merit Scholarships at HBCUs

For students interested in merit scholarships at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the HBCU Money Guide database is a valuable resource. Subscribing to HBCU Money Guide provides access to a comprehensive database of every merit scholarship available from all 107 HBCUs.


In conclusion, merit scholarships offer a pathway to higher education for deserving individuals. Understanding the eligibility criteria, and distinctions from financial aid, and leveraging resources like the HBCU Money Guide database can empower students on their journey to securing financial assistance and achieving a debt-free degree.

Explore the HBCU Money Guide database today to discover tailored merit scholarships for your academic journey. Subscribe for more insightful content, and feel free to share this guide with others seeking valuable information on merit scholarships.

An HBCU student with scholarship application