College affordability is one of the top concerns among parents of college-bound students today. Merit-based scholarships are an often overlooked part of the financial package that can make college affordable for your family.

There are two major categories of merit scholarships: those offered by the school and those offered by third-party organizations. Although some merit scholarships can cover up to the full cost of attending a university, most are smaller, often in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. Don’t let low dollar amounts discourage you, though; it’s possible to stack multiple in-school and out-of-school merit offers on top of each other, and scholarships can add up quickly.

School-offered Merit Scholarships

Be sure to consider these factors when looking at school-offered merit scholarships:

  • Selectivity. Schools use merit scholarships as a way to attract students who may otherwise matriculate somewhere else, so pay special attention to quality schools with little name recognition and schools where your scores will put you in the top 5-10% of your class.
  • Individual college offerings. Be sure to look at each school individually; many of the most selective universities (including most of the Ivy League) offer no merit-based financial aid, while others (such as Duke University) offer full-ride merit scholarships through a separate application process.
  • Application timelines. Although many schools will automatically consider all applicants for available merit scholarships, some require an additional application materials or an application for need-based financial aid. Be sure to look into the merit scholarship program of each school you’re applying to!

The following universities have a demonstrated history of offering competitive, merit-based scholarships. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but it may help jump start your search!

  • UC Berkeley. Berkeley offers a number of merit scholarships, including the Fiat Lux Scholarship, which targets high-achieving students from local California high schools.
  • The University of Southern California. USC considers all applicants who apply before the December deadline for quarter-tuition, half-tuition, and full-tuition four-year merit scholarships.
  • The University of the Pacific. UoP offers merit scholarships covering up to the full cost of tuition, including several which require an additional application.
  • The University of Chicago. Chicago is currently the university with the highest U.S. News & World Report ranking to offer merit-based financial aid; all applicants are considered for scholarships that cover partial tuition and summer programs.

Third-party Merit Scholarships

Beyond school-offered merit scholarships, many third-party organizations offer merit scholarships you may qualify for.

The best way to find third-party merit scholarships is through search engines that match you with scholarships based on several factors, including test scores and GPA, demographic information, and academic interests. The top scholarship search engines are run by College Board, CollegeNET, and; it’s worth looking at each of their databases, since some scholarships you qualify for may be listed on some but not others. In addition, one of the largest merit scholarships available is the Stamps Family Charitable Foundation, which offers full-ride merit scholarships to dozens of partner universities, including UC Berkeley, USC, and CalTech.

As you work through your scholarship search, it’s also worth talking to your teachers and your school’s college counselling department. Some scholarships require a nomination by a teacher or counselor, and if yours know that you’re looking they’ll be more likely to put your name in for consideration. They may also have leads on scholarships they think would be a good option for you.