3 years ago
Admissions Advice

Are Merit-Based Scholarships A Real Thing?

So I have recently found out that my parents make way more money than I thought. So I will not have access to any financial aid on a need-basis (or whatever it is called), so I have to somehow pay for college without that. (My parents have told me that paying for college is my responsibility). I have been looking online for merit-only scholarships, but from what I can tell every single one requires applicants to be low-income. Also, the more prestigious schools (Harvard, Ivies, etc) do not offer merit-based scholarships? I thought there were these full-ride scholarships, but I was definitely wrong. I really am not sure what I do next. I am a junior right now if that changes anything. Essentially, I am shooting for a top school, which is very expensive, and I have no idea I am going to pay for that, and looking for help and suggestions.


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4 answers

3 years ago[edited]

Not to throw shade on your folks, but sharing that this late in the game is unforgivable and irresponsible. Well, let's focus on your specific problem.

First of all, you have to adjust your expectations of where you are going to go to college. I think that's the 1st order of business because you might set yourself for a huge disappointment if you apply to certain schools, get in, and then can't attend for financial reasons.

It seems like your parents are not really planners and haven't thought too much about your higher education so I'll help fill in some critical information.


Almost all the available aid is need-based, not merit-based. However before you through in the towel, I would ask your parents what their actual income and assets are because most of these schools have a sliding scale of up to 250,000 income. Both Harvard and Yale and the other schools, still offer financial aid to higher-income families but the parent contribution is on a sliding scale. So if you get into Harvard for example, parents have to pay 10% of the total costs if their income is up to $150,000 and then a sliding scale based on their ability to pay if their income is said 200,000 or 250,000. So you can still get aid but perhaps that aid will only cover 1/2 or less than that if your parents are really upper middle class. Unless your parents are willing to be 100% transparent about their income and assets, you will not be able to apply for aid to these schools because they still must fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile for each of these schools. If they don't agree to do that, you are not going to get any aid whatsoever.

The main topic I want to cover is something Jeff Selingo's book covers in detail. Basically, there are buyers' colleges and seller colleges. A seller is an IVY or ELITE or Top Liberal Arts College. Like Supreme, LV, Gucci, they have a commodity everyone wants so there is more demand than supply. Therefore, they don't have to give anyone a break because there are more people willing to pay full tuition, room, and board to attend these schools than there are available seats. The only reason why they don't charge everyone is that they want their campus to be interesting. They pick and choose who they want and have billions of dollars behind them in endowments to pick up the tab. So if they want more diversity, they just invite the most interesting BIPOC, marginalized, low-income students to join in "on the house" because it makes the experience a more successful experiment. So if you are on either side of the fence, either extremely rich or poor, you have a great shot at attending Seller schools.

Buyer schools on the other hand are typically 2nd or 3rd drawer schools. Think of the colleges arranged in a dresser. The Top Drawer is the Sellers, then the 2nd drawer is a mix of Sellers and Buyers and the 3rd drawer down is mostly buyers. Once you get to 3rd drawer schools, they typically have to give the middle class and upper-middle-class families a discount in order to fill their seats. A great buyer school typically is well endowed but has a lower admit rate and lower yield rate and a spend on aid which is mostly allocated for non-need-based applicants.

So at really good Buyer schools, it is entirely possible to get a full-ride merit scholarship but you have to work your butt off to get them because there are not that many to give at each school. I'm going to list some schools where you can get a full tuition or full ride but they are very hard.

-Washington and Lee


-The College of William and Mary

-Trinity College

-Trinity University

-Dennison University

-University of Miami

-University of Richmond

-Case Western University

-Stevens Institute of Technology

-Tulane University


-Colorado School of Mines

-Elon University




-University of Alabama

So you have some fast research to do and put together a list of colleges that have merit aid to fund your education. Then use the NPC Net Price Calculator for each of these schools based on your family's income and assets to get a fairly good idea of what the cost will be to you. As a rule of thumb consider your personal circumstances, is that the better the school you get into, the more loans you will have to take to attend. So weigh that into your college list and what you are personally willing to absorb to attend the school. So if you really want to attend a top school and you know that it's going to be around $350,000 for 4 years, run the NPC on that school and see what its financial burden per year will be for you. It might cost you $150,000 to $200,000 to attend so you really have to be strategic and focused because you don't want to be underwater with debt for 10 or 15 years after you graduate.

Alternatives can be to attend a state college for 2 years and then transfer into a better school for years 3/4. Or take a gap year and establish residency in California during that GAP year, and apply to UCLA or UC Berkeley as an in-state applicant.

Maybe these are ideas you don't want to embrace or think about but what can you do if your parents haven't planned for your college education and leave you hanging out to dry to figure out.

For all you 9th, 10th, and 11th graders reading this, NOW is the time to get the facts straight from your parents. College admissions is a very serious thing and you need to know whether they have made any plans for your higher education. You need to ask them the hard questions now when you can do something about it not during senior year okay. You have enough things on your plate to worry about. So take my advice and ask your parents what their income and assets are before you start shopping for schools.

3 years ago

Hi! I'm so sorry that you have to be dealing with this right now. There are certainly merit-only scholarships! Unfortunately, many of these do look at your finances and are more likely to give them to lower-income families (for example, 50% may be set aside for these individuals). However, this does not mean that you won't get one! At this point, I would focus on scholarships that schools offer, such as presidential or governor's scholarships. These are going to be your best bet at a full ride or full-tuition scholarship. I would also focus on getting smaller scholarships here and there, such as by writing essays and through programs like these such as College Vine. $500 may not sound like a lot, but it will add up!

Lastly, if these scholarships don't work out, you always have other options. Community college is a great way to save money. However, if you are anything like me, you wouldn't even consider community college haha, so I definitely feel you there. Aside from this, you can always get a job on campus to help you pay your tuition, and/or take out student loans if you absolutely have to. And who knows! You may be just on the border enough that you will qualify for some very minimal financial aid from the FAFSA, which could help you out a bit.

I hope this helps, best of luck to you!! :)

3 years ago

@MaxCaza, I'm very sorry that you have recently found out that you're in this position. It is true that if your parents make >$250k/year (or thereabouts), you will likely not qualify for need-based financial aid. This means that at top schools (like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, etc.) which do not award any merit scholarships, you will be stuck paying the full sticker price of often >$70k/year. Are your parents aware of this situation? If you really do believe you have a chance at an acceptance at these top schools, it's probably worth a few more chats with your family to see if there's any chance they'd consider supporting you financially in your college endeavors.

If your parents are dead set against giving you a cent for your college studies, you do have plenty of other options. Of course, you could take out loans. This is likely a bad idea, as you would likely need to take out massive amounts of money, and these loans can plague you the rest of your life.

Merit scholarships are an obvious place to go. Luckily, to qualify for them, you generally don't need to do much extra work. (Some schools do have priority deadlines for scholarship considerations, though, so do look out for these.) In general, schools offer merit scholarships to their top admits. These vary dramatically in range from a couple thousand dollars each year to full rides. At less selective schools, a high GPA and strong SAT or ACT score can unlock a great deal of merit-based aid. At more selective schools where all admits have a good GPA and test scores, a strong extracurricular list and excellent essays will help you attain merit-based aid. At somewhat competitive schools, merit-based aid decisions are quite opaque. This means you won't know how much aid (if any) you'll qualify for until you receive your offer.

To maximize your chances at merit-based aid, I would apply to a number of colleges in your safety and low target range (you can check this in your chancing profile here on Collegevine.com), and make sure not to apply anywhere early decision. I'd also spend a great deal of time polishing your essays.

An additional tactic you could employ to save money would be to start off at a community college, get your Associate's Degree, and then transfer to a 4-year school, thus saving two years of tuition. You could also try to leverage your AP, IB, or other college-level classes to graduate from college early. Finally, you could consider deferring your acceptance at your future school and working for a year.

Wishing you the best luck. Please comment if you have more questions.

3 years ago

There are many outside scholarships that can provide a lot of assistance, since you are a junior you should also take the national merit scholarship. That can potentially give you a full ride to many prestigious universities.

What are your chances of acceptance?
Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
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Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


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