Are Merit Scholarships an Option?

By Dr. Thomas O. Phillips


Virtually all good colleges, public and private, in North Carolina have financial aid to help accepted students to attend. The bulk of aid available from colleges will be need-based aid: combinations of scholarships, grants, loans, and work programs awarded based upon financial documents that you and your family submit. A great percentage of students who receive aid to attend college, whether public or private, do so on need-based packages.

For a smaller group of students who have achieved unusual distinction in one or several ways, college also may offer merit-based aid to recognize such achievement and recruit that student to the school. Merit aid comes in a variety of stipends and requirements, but would likely be awarded by the college not on the basis of any financial document, rather on the basis of special talents, skills, academic or other achievements of the student. These scholarships can range from modest grants of several hundred dollars to comprehensive merit packages to provide for all, or nearly all, direct costs of education.

Many students -- not just those top few in the high school class -- might qualify for merit aid, depending on one's talents and the interests and selectivity of the school offering that scholarship. While merit aid can often help a student choose a suitable and desirable school, merit aid alone should not be the sole determinant of where one chooses to attend. College scholarship officers will urge students to accept merit aid if it helps them to choose a school they have studied thoroughly, visited fully, and appreciate accurately.

Merit aid comes in several forms, described below.


Academic Scholarships

The majority of merit-based scholarships offered to students in North Carolina employs as a primary criterion the combination of high ability and high performance in courses. Thus, factors such as grade point average, rank in class, number of AP or IB courses, and SAT I, SAT II, or ACT scores help the college officials judge you in the context of fellow applicants. Often the "numbers" are viewed in the even greater context of course load, campus and civic leadership, talents, achievements beyond the high school, and writing. Do you have an intellectual passion that might accord with an academic strength of the school? Does your combination of grades and leadership suggest a visible campus leader and model student? Does your writing -- expressed in required or voluntary samples -- show a mature analytical ability? Often such scholarships require campus interviews for finalists, and this offers the student a useful opportunity to learn more about programs, faculty, and student life. Some scholarships will help you gain preregistration or preference in housing; others offer programmatic features such as lectures and dinners; still others provide supplemental sponsors but may offer little by way of other such perks. As with any scholarship offer, know fully the value of the scholarship as against the comprehensive budget; the renewal requirements; and any enhancement of career or graduate school placement the program might provide.

Talent-based Scholarships

Many schools that offer the academic scholarships noted above also offer more specialized scholarships for particular talents. Prominent among them are scholarships for athletic talent at institutions eligible under NCAA rules. (This can refer to gymnastics as much as to football, cheer leading as much as to lacrosse.) Prospective student athletes should be both careful and aggressive about letting a school know of your interest; high school coaches often are essential middle persons in such a process. But there are many other scholarships offered at different schools based upon other forms of talent, including art, music, debate, science or math aptitude, dance, cheer leading, business skills, theater, oratory, and others. There are a large number and wide range of such scholarships, which often reflect faculty interest in developing or sustaining certain activities and courses of study on a campus. As with any scholarship in which you have possible interest, you should inquire early and fully about such programs, to learn requirements, odds of winning, and expectations of recipients. Often a letter to the school, outlining your own skills, accomplishments, and academic or talent honors, is a good way to establish a dialogue with a college, which in reading of your record may invite you to consider or apply for certain awards. One good, enduring rule of thumb: don't be shy!

National Merit and National Achievement Scholarships

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation offers scholarships to students based upon academic record initially identified through the PSAT given in the junior year of high school. A majority of scholarships is awarded to any eligible student through the National Merit program; some awards are offered specifically to African-American students through the National Achievement program. In both cases, high testing skills are confirmed by a corresponding academic record, and students who become finalists compete for three types of awards. (Approximately one in three finalists will receive a National Merit or Achievement award.) There are a limited number of one-time, nonrenewable national awards, generally for $2,000. There are a large number of corporate-sponsored awards, which vary in stipend and are generally renewable. Both these types of grants are transferable to any chosen institution. The third type, college-sponsored awards, are specific to a sponsoring college and can vary greatly in stipend, even to full tuition or more.

Scholarships Based upon Background or Ethnicity

While all colleges seek the most widely representative student body, not all colleges have scholarships which work to further or insure diversity. But some schools offer scholarships based upon race, ethnicity, region, alumni relations, even first-generation college history, in order to make their first-year classes as diverse as possible. Of particular note is the Ron Brown Scholarship program, a nationally competitive program for African-American students that provides fellowships of up to $10,000 to use at any school.

Special Scholarships at the Local, State, and National Levels

Local institutions, regional companies, and national private foundations or groups offer scholarships, such as Rotarians, Elks, Lions, local school systems, local and state women's clubs, music club federations, local and state DAR, NC Junior Miss and other academic and talent pageants, Optimist oratorical contests, and many others. As with all such scholarship opportunities, perseverance and early planning are keys to possible success. The junior year of high school is an appropriate time to write letters and make phone calls, using your high school guidance office or the Internet as resources. All NC colleges and universities, and many other sponsoring agencies like the sample above, have full and informative websites that can answer loads of questions in a simple and inexpensive way.

Above all, start early and don't miss deadlines for scholarships, most of which have separate applications (whether college or outside agency). North Carolina is blessed with a wide range of excellent public and private colleges, and other sponsoring agencies, that commit merit funds to attract the best of North Carolina students. Remember that finding a college is finding the right match of your interests and personality with those programs and people at a particular place. Merit aid, like need-based aid, can be a pivotal part of your decision to attend the college of your choice. Work hard in school and you will have much to offer those colleges eager to share with you their financial support and their hopes for what you can become with a quality education as your foundation.

Dr. Thomas O. Phillips is Associate Director of Admissions and Scholarships Officer at Wake Forest University. You can visit Wake Forest University on the web at