Who Gets Full Ride Scholarships?

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Winner CrownWho gets full ride scholarships? Most parents want to know this as wouldn’t we all love not to have to pay for college?

In answering this question, the key word is “Top“.

Before we go any further in exploring this though, we need to address “need based” scholarships as they will not be the focus of this article. Who gets full ride need-based scholarships? Families with a very low Expected Family Contribution get these. To learn more about this topic, I encourage you to read “Best Colleges for Need-Based Financial Aid“.

In this article, I am going to focus primarily on merit-based scholarships, but I will also touch on a couple other kinds.

Again, the key word in the answer to who gets full ride scholarships is “top”. This will become clearer as we explore the different types of non-need scholarships.

Who Gets Full Ride Athletic Scholarships?

Short Answer – Top Athletes

Athletic full rides are generally only available at the Division 1 level. How do you know if your student is good enough to play at this level? Several ways:

  • Interest shown by college coaches
  • Level he or she is playing at on club teams and in leagues? Is it considered the top level of competition?
  • Does he or she make “all conference” every year, “all area” and even better “all state”?
  • Have school and club/league coaches always said your student could play at a high level in college?
  • Do his or her stats seem to match up with current Division 1 players?

Important to note: Not all Division 1 schools offer full rides, even for headcount sports like volleyball. The sports program must be “fully funded” to be able to offer full rides. (For example, in volleyball, a fully funded program has 12 full ride scholarships available for the whole team.)

Who Gets Full Ride Talent Scholarships?

Short Answer – Top Musicians, Top Artists, Top Dancers, Top Actors, etc (You get the idea)

How do you know if your student is talented enough?

A few things may tell you to at least take a chance on one of these scholarships:

  • Winning contests and awards (school, conference, regional, etc)
  • Feedback from teachers and private coaches/instructors
  • Level of work compared to peers

Often, these talent scholarships will be full tuition scholarships and not cover the room and board part of the cost.

When you are looking at a college that has talent-based full ride and/or full tuition scholarships your student is interested in, don’t be afraid to ask what past winners looked like.

Who Gets Full Ride Merit Scholarships?

Short answer: Top Students

What makes a “top student”?

  • High ACT or SAT score
  • High GPA
  • High Class Rank
  • Lots of leadership experience
  • Lots of service experience
  • Unique activities/experiences

Let’s look specifically at merit scholarships awarded directly by colleges to attract top students. Again, we will focus on full ride and full tuition scholarships.

In some cases, the colleges make it easy to quantify and assess your student against scholarship criteria. In other cases, the merit scholarship is awarded through a competition not based on specific criteria. It may say something like “awarded to top applicants in the applicant pool” or “based on excellent academic records and outstanding promise” or “chosen for their academic ability, leadership accomplishments, and commitment to service”. In these cases, it will be hard to assess your student’s chances. I will give you some things to look for.

First, let’s look at the quantifiable scholarship criteria. For the past several years, I have published and maintained a comprehensive listing of merit-based full ride and full tuition scholarships offered by colleges around the country. Currently, the Full Scholarship List contains 1,148 of these scholarships. Here’s some data to help you assess your student’s chances at one of these top scholarships:

  • Out of 1,148 scholarships listed, 428 have a minimum ACT requirement (usually it’s combined with an SAT requirement and is an either/or)
    • 351 of the 428 require an ACT composite score of 25 or higher
    • 159 of the 428 require an ACT composite score of 30 or higher
    • Only 15 require an ACT score of 34 or higher


  • Out of 1,148 scholarships listed, 358 have a minimum SAT requirement (usually it’s an either/or with an ACT requirement)
    • 258 of the 358 require an SAT total score of 1250 or higher
    • 94 of the 358 require an SAT total score of 1400 or higher
    • Only 22 require an SAT total score of 1500 or higher


  • Out of 1,148 scholarships listed, 447 have a minimum GPA requirement (usually it’s a combination of ACT/SAT and GPA)
    • 439 of the 447 require a GPA of 3.0 or higher
    • 335 of the 447 require a GPA of 3.5 or higher
    • 86 of the 447 require a GPA of 3.8 or higher

If your student has taken the ACT or SAT, you can assess his or her chances at being considered for a full tuition or full ride scholarship by looking at the ranges above.

For the GPA ranges, most schools are calculating based on an unweighted cumulative GPA. There are some schools that will calculate based on a weighted GPA. I always recommend checking details on the school’s website and if it is not clear, reach out to the admissions or financial aid office to ask.

Now, what about those schools that don’t list specific minimum criteria for a student to be considered for a full merit scholarship? (As I said above, this makes it much harder to assess your student’s chances.)

I do have some “things to look for” in determining whether your student should apply for these full merit scholarships.

Things to Look For When Determining Whether Your Student Should Apply for Full Ride and Full Tuition Merit Scholarships Without Clear Minimum Requirements

  • Compare your student’s ACT and/or SAT score to the school’s mid-50% range for admitted applicants. If your student is above the mid-50% range, there’s a much greater chance of winning a top scholarship.
  • Assess the amount and quality of leadership experience your student has. If he or she has consistently held leadership positions throughout high school and has demonstrated leadership outside of school as well, this will increase his or her chances for a full ride or full tuition scholarship.
  • Assess the amount and quality of community service your student has done. Students who go above and beyond what most students do, and often have leadership experience with a service organization or on a service project, will have greater chances for a top scholarship.
  • Does your student have a unique activity or experience? The best examples of this would be starting a business or inventing something that was put into practice by a business, school or organization. Anything else where your student took a risk and it resulted in a defining experience could work here as well.
  • Will your student stand out in some other way compared to other applicants? An example of this would be a female applying for a top scholarship at a school that is predominantly male or a program (like Engineering or Computer Science) that is predominantly male. When compared to male applicants with similar statistics, the female may have an advantage if the school is trying to attract more females. Other ways to stand out would be to be from another part of the U.S. (or another country) at a school that mostly attracts in-state students.

If you have read everything above and believe your student is a good candidate for merit-based full tuition and full ride scholarships, your next question is probably, “How will we find these scholarships?”

You may be lucky enough to stumble across a few full scholarships at schools your student is already interested in. But how will you know what other full scholarships are out there that your student should apply for? (This is something I agonized over with my oldest daughter several years ago until I came up with my own answer.)

I mentioned the Full Scholarship List above. It contains 1,148 full ride and full tuition scholarships offered directly by colleges.

It also lists 18 state-sponsored full ride and full tuition merit scholarship programs. I checked all states and found 14 states that offered full scholarship programs not based on financial need.

In addition, it lists 14 private scholarship programs that give amounts that cover full tuition or more and are not based on financial need.

And just to make sure you aren’t left wondering why a lot of the top academic schools aren’t on the list, I include a listing of colleges that don’t offer merit scholarships.

I go through every entry on the list twice a year to make sure it is still valid. I also do periodic smaller updates, especially when I find new scholarships to add (I love finding more full scholarships to add to the list!). Purchasers get all updated versions for one year from purchase date.

Why don’t I give this list away for free? Honestly, it is a TON of work to keep this thing updated to make sure you have access to the most comprehensive and up-to-date listing available. If this was easy, I’d gladly give it away for free. During “crunch time” twice a year, I spend every free moment I have to get the list updated and published as quickly as possible (my family hates these times – if I’m not at work or sleeping, I’m pretty much on the computer!).

Also, I have been committed, since the very first version I published, to using the profits to offer a scholarship at our local high school. (I love going to Awards night and being able to surprise the winner. I am excited that the scholarship I give in the Spring of 2019 will be the biggest one to date!)

If you want to hear more about the Full Scholarship List, check out my video here.