How Colleges Determine Merit Scholarships

See which factors one private school used to determine merit awards.

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How do colleges and universities decide who will get their merit scholarships? Grade point averages, standardized test scores, and the strength of your high school curriculum often play a significant role. However, there are other factors, particularly at private schools, that can play a supporting role in determining which students pocket awards.

Teenagers who receive merit awards are happy to receive the money, but they often don't know what it took to earn them. That's why I was happy to stumble across the blueprint for the merit awards that the University of Rochester dispensed to its latest crop of freshmen.

Jonathan Burdick, the undergraduate dean of admissions and financial aid, decided to take a look after the 2011-12 class was formed to see what factors had mattered in merit award decisions. Even better, Burdick assigned a dollar value to these factors.

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I found the merit aid breakdown fascinating. While all schools will have their own criteria, this list will give you some sense of what matters beyond the obvious. Here's how Rochester's merit awards played out during the past admissions cycle:

• $3,000: The school typically rewarded candidates who reached out to it with an extra $3,000. These were teenagers who had serious conversations with the admissions and financial aid office. Schools like to feel wanted, and reaching out to them with meaningful conversations can help.

• $2,000: That's what teens who weren't New Yorkers received. Sixty two percent of the freshmen class hails from somewhere else. While Burdick didn't check, he suspects that students who lived farther away received an even fatter amount of money.

Why would students benefit from being from distant states? Because college crave geographic diversity. They want to be able to brag that they have students from all 50 states or close to it. 

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• $62: Each "A" on a teen's transcript generated $62 worth of merit aid.

• $400: Teenagers received roughly $400 for each tough course that they took. Courses that would qualify included Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors.

• $1,800: A student got this much more if the school considered his or her recommendations excellent.

• $115: Each 10-point improvement in the SAT above the average for Rochester freshmen garnered an extra $115. The average SAT score was 2040.

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• $400: Observing deadlines matter. Students got an extra $400 for completing the application on time, as well as making sure mid-year grades were sent.

• $1.89: You got this much less every time a student was admitted with the same major. This clearly favored students with less popular majors such as philosophy and hurt students interested in such big majors as psychology, political science, and economics.

• $1,700: That's how much the typical freshmen received in merit money if his or her parents completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The school imposes a progressive tax on its merit awards. On average, $4 less in income boosts the merit award by one cent.