About 30 schools at the very top of the food chainincluding Harvard, Princeton, and Yale universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technologydo not offer merit scholarships. These are the schools with so many applications for admission that they end up turning away valedictorians with perfect test scores. Students who overcome the admissions odds don't need additional inducement to enroll. Still, a few top schools do give out a handful of awards to the best of the best, including Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Chicago, and Washington University in St. Louis. Students who have what it takes to get into the most elite schools also have what it takes to earn some serious merit money at excellent, but perhaps less prestigious, colleges. At smaller, lesser-known schools, a B average, an SAT score of 1100, and a class rank in the top third can be enough to nab a merit award.
To increase the chances of garnering a merit award, students should apply to schools where they stand out. Applicants with test scores and a class rank or GPA in the top 25 percent will often earn merit money. It can also help if the student brings ethnic or geographic diversity to the school or a special talent that's in demand. The A's and B's of Academic Scholarships (Octameron Associates, $10) provides a comprehensive list of merit scholarships at 1,200 colleges and universities.
What if you earn a merit scholarship and also qualify for financial aid based on need? The money should come rolling in, right? Not so fast. In the eyes of the school, you are richer than you were before; in other words, your need has shrunk. Thus the school will probably use the merit money to replace the need-based aid it would have given you otherwise. Typically, scholarships will first replace loans and work-study in your aid package. But if the award is large enough, it might also replace need-based grants.
Let's say, for instance, you earned a $10,000 merit scholarship and also qualified for $20,000 in need-based aid, which included $4,000 in loans and work-study. You wouldn't get $30,000 in aid. The $10,000 scholarship means you have $10,000 less need. The first $4,000 of your scholarship would probably replace your loans and work-study with free money, and the rest would probably replace $6,000 of your need-based grant.
Of course, academic stars aren't the only students colleges want. If you're a standout athlete, there may be scholarship money available for you, too. Free rides are rare. They go mainly to the football and basketball players at the big-name National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I schools. In other sports, coaches have a set amount of scholarship money to allocate among all their players, and they tend to spread it around. Under NCAA rules, a Division I men's swimming coach can give the equivalent of 9.9 full-ride scholarships to his players, for instance. But the money will probably be divided among 20 or more swimmers. Some will get an award that covers tuition, others will receive the equivalent of room and board, while some students will be handed just enough money to pay for books.