Paying for college can be challenging, but for some students, receiving merit aid can make a big difference. Merit aid is not based on financial need and is awarded based on factors like academic achievements or unique talents. Depending on the individual student and the school they attend, merit aid can be enough to cover the cost of a few classes or even an entire college education.
Here are a few tips to help you get the most merit aid:
1. Be a top candidate
When it comes to merit aid awards and receiving the largest possible award, it helps to be one of the college’s top candidates. Ideally, you’ll want to pick a school where your grades and test scores fall into the top 25 percent. This gives you an advantage and often, the best opportunity to receive merit aid. There are quite a few useful tools on the web that can help you figure out the colleges where you’re likely to be a top candidate. For example, one tool created by CollegeSimply.com allows you to explore the average GPA for students at more than 1,800 colleges.
2. Research which schools offer the most merit aid
Some schools are more generous than others when it comes to merit aid, and attending one of these colleges could increase your chances of receiving an award. While you may not want to base your college choice solely on the reputation of offering more merit aid, including one or more of these schools in your application process can help ensure you have different options to compare when your award letters arrive. There are many handy resources online to help you find these colleges, including a list of schools from The Princeton Review.
3. Don’t forget to fill out your FAFSA
Some students decide to skip the FAFSA because they think their family makes too much money to qualify for financial aid. Don’t make this mistake! The FAFSA becomes available in October, and most students will at least qualify for unsubsidized, federal loans regardless of their financial need. Beyond the federal aid that’s available, some schools won’t consider you for ANY aid – even merit aid – if you haven’t completed your FAFSA. Don’t miss out on this important step; you could be leaving money on the table.
4. Consider the entire cost
Whether a college is likely to offer merit aid or not is just one piece of the equation. Make sure you’re thinking about the entire cost. One college might be more likely to offer merit aid, but the cost of attendance could start significantly higher than other comparable options. In the end, a school that doesn’t offer as much merit aid may still cost you less if their tuition and room and board expenses are lower overall. If cost is a primary concern, you’ll want to look at the big picture before making any final decisions.
5. Know the terms ahead of time
Each merit aid program is different and will have its own terms. If you’re still exploring college options and comparing how much merit aid is offered at each, keep in mind there may be certain requirements to keep qualifying for and receiving merit aid. For example, some colleges may only award merit aid for a set number of years, and you may need more time to finish your degree. Other schools require that eligible students maintain a minimum GPA to continue receiving merit aid.
6. Ask about appeals and negotiations
A college’s decision on your merit aid is not necessarily a final decision. If you were offered an award that’s not enough to cover certain expenses, it’s worth trying to negotiate. It could mean the difference between being able to afford your top pick school or looking elsewhere. If the school sees you as an asset, they won’t want to lose you and may be willing to increase their offer, especially if you received a better offer from a different school.
If anything has changed since your initial application (for example, your test scores and/or GPA has gone up), be sure to bring this to the school’s attention. It can also be helpful during your appeal to explain why you need more aid, as well as specifying the exact amount you’re hoping to get.
If you don’t receive the amount of merit aid you need to cover your college expenses, you may still have other options. When financial aid and scholarships fall short of what you need for your college expenses, the student loan options we offer may be able to help bridge that gap.