Finding Merit Scholarships for Top Students

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Updated August 2, 2018

Merit Scholarships Help Make College AffordableThere are several methods of finding merit scholarships for top students.  Whether you are looking for merit scholarships for top GPAs, merit scholarships for top ACT scores or SAT scores, or a combination, it will require some research time to find the best opportunities for your student.

What Are Merit Scholarships?

These are scholarships offered by colleges to attract top students, also known as “institutional merit scholarships”. Merit scholarships come in all sizes, from a couple thousand dollars or less to a full ride. The largest sources of merit scholarships are the colleges themselves.  Yes, there are private scholarships out there, but most of these are smaller in dollar amount and the competition is intense.

Colleges offer merit scholarships to attract top students.  Many colleges offer specified dollar amount merit scholarships for top ACT scores (or SAT scores) and/or top GPAs. These scholarships come in two varieties – automatic and competitive.

What I mean by automatic is that the college states that any admitted applicant with specified statistics will receive a scholarship.  This usually requires a certain ACT/SAT score and GPA combination (or a range).  Some schools publish the exact amount for certain score/GPA combinations. Others just say the student will receive a scholarship within a specific range of amounts.

Colleges that offer competitive merit scholarships don’t promise anything.  The student competes with other top students for specified scholarships.  Some colleges offer both automatic and competitive scholarships.

One important thing to keep in mind – the most competitive colleges in the country generally do not offer merit scholarships.  Why?  They don’t have to. I am talking specifically about colleges with acceptance rates below 30%.  These schools already attract many more talented students than they can admit.  They don’t need to try harder!  These schools mainly focus on offering need-based aid to talented students who cannot afford to pay sticker price. You will find a few exceptions out there where a top tier school will offer a merit scholarship for top ACT scores or SAT scores and top GPAs. These scholarships tend to be competitive, not automatic.

Best Ways to Find Merit Scholarships for Top Students

  1. The College’s Website – If your student has specific schools in mind, check the college websites to find out what merit scholarships are offered.  Usually you can get to this information through the Admissions area of the website or the Financial Aid area.  Sometimes it is easiest to just find the search box and type in “scholarships” to see what you find.  Many schools offer scholarships for both incoming students and current students, so you may have to dig through a few layers to find merit scholarships for incoming students.
  2. Scholarship Search Engines – The scholarship search engine that is best for finding merit scholarships offered by the colleges is Cappex.  Unfortunately you need to look for a specific school to find merit scholarships.  This doesn’t work if you are trying to find schools offering great scholarships! It is still my favorite overall scholarship search engine.  It is especially useful for finding private scholarships because it will tell you how difficult the entry is and how much competition there will be for a specific scholarship.  Other similar sites to check out are and FastWeb. These sites include some merit scholarships offered by colleges in addition to private scholarships. Just beware that these sites all sell your student’s information to other college-related companies. I always recommend setting up a separate email address just for this purpose so you don’t have to filter through all the spam that’s going to start coming in!
  3. Online Merit Scholarship Lists – One method for finding merit scholarships is through lists that websites have compiled.  I have found these on College Confidential,, and  They tend to list only full tuition and full ride scholarships.  These lists are not extremely complete and tend to be outdated.
  4. Full Scholarship List – This is my own listing of full tuition and full ride merit scholarships, available to download through my website.  I schedule updates to the list twice a year, summer and around the end of the year.  Links to the college websites are included so you can get full details on each scholarship.  I provide the list in Microsoft Excel so that it is sortable, filterable and searchable (other formats are also available).  It requires a large amount of my time so I charge $7.99 to download it. Profits provide merit scholarships to deserving students in my local area.
  5. – This is my subscription-based site that lists ALL merit scholarships from colleges across the U.S. in amounts of $2,000 and more. It is a search site allowing you to search different ways. The most popular ways are by Scholarship Type (automatic, competitive, talent, National Merit/National Achievement)or Scholarship Value (categories include up to full ride, up to full tuition, half tuition and more, less than half tuition, varies, and a few others). You can also search by School Name, or by minimum GPA and ACT/SAT requirements. There are two affordable subscription options depending on how long you want to maintain access.

Use scholarship lists and search engines to find scholarships at schools you may not have considered.  Use the colleges’ own websites to find scholarships offered at schools your student is already looking at.  There are lots of available merit scholarships for top students.  You just need to put some work into finding them.