Academic Merit Scholarship Programs

Use Your Talent to Pay for College

As the name suggests, academic merit scholarships are awarded based on criteria like grade point average, class ranking, and scores on standardized admissions tests like the SAT and ACT. Many schools offer them as part of the admissions process, meaning you do not need to submit an application in order to be considered. Many of them pay full tuition, college fees, and a stipend to help with your other expenses, meaning an academic merit scholarship can solve the problem of finding financial aid altogether.

There are also national organizations that use standardized test scores as the basis for handing out merit scholarships. These are highly competitive, and your other extracurricular accomplishments will strengthen your application.


National Merit Scholarship Corporation

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) runs two scholarship programs using donations from private corporations and the nation’s colleges. The only requirement for entry into the scholarship competition is taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT), which you will do as a junior in high school as preparation for taking the SAT as a senior. Registration for the test is done by your high school, so make sure you are entered by talking to your college counselor.

The two NMSC scholarship programs, which differ slightly, are explained below.

National Merit Scholarship Program

The National Merit Scholarship Program screens about 1.5 million students each year, so your scores must be impressive to qualify for a scholarship. You must take the PSAT/NMSQT by your third year of high school at the latest, you must be a U. S. citizen or legal permanent resident, and you must be enrolled in high school and planning to attend college.

Your composite score, reached by adding your scores on the critical reading, mathematics, and writing portions of the test, determines your Selection Index, and the 50,000 high-scoring students earn recognition from NMSC as either Commended Students, Semifinalists, or Finalists. About two-thirds of the 50,000 become Commended Students, and while they don’t move on to the main competition they may be eligible for corporate-sponsored Special Scholarships.

The remaining third (about 16,000) are designated as Semifinalists, and NMSC sends scholarship applications to high schools attended by that group. Based on those applications the students who qualify as Finalists are chosen. NMSC has published a helpful document describing what you, as an entrant into the competition, need to do.

In the last step, about 15,000 Finalists submit detailed information through their high schools about their academic records, the schools’ courses and grading, and their extracurricular activities plus a personal essay. About 8,300 students receive one of the following:

  • National Merit $2,500 Scholarship
  • Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship award, or
  • College-sponsored Merit Scholarship award.

National Achievement Scholarship Program

The National Achievement Scholarship Program is a parallel program reserved for black students, who are also included in the National Merit Scholarship Program. It works in a very similar fashion, and the only real difference is the smaller group of entrants. There are two eventual awards for Finalists:

  • National Merit $2,500 Scholarship and
  • Corporate-sponsored Achievement Scholarship award.

Academic Merit Scholarships From Colleges

Check with your school to discover whether you’re eligible for one of these awards, because if you are that will greatly simplify your financial planning. In fact, the possibility of full tuition is sufficiently attractive to make that type of scholarship offer a factor in your choice of schools. Here are some examples of the different scholarship programs you’ll find.

Gettysburg College

Gettysburg College awards academic merit scholarships based on your GPA, class rank, and score on the SAT or ACT. There are four scholarships available:

  • Abraham Lincoln Scholarships, for $25,000 each year
  • Presidential Scholarships, for $15,000
  • David Wills Scholarships, for $10,000, and
  • 1832 Founders Scholarships, for $7,000.

The scholarships are all renewable, provided the student maintains the required GPA (2.75 in the first year, 3.0 thereafter). These scholarships can affect the amounts of any other grant based on financial need. For example, if you are eligible for a financial need grant and you are awarded an academic merit scholarship, that scholarship is subtracted from the amount of your financial need grant. If you get both a grant and a scholarship of a higher amount, then you’ll receive only the grant in the higher amount.

Michigan State University

Michigan State University (MSU) has an entire page of academic merit scholarships. Here are some examples of what MSU offers academically talented students:

  • The Alumni Distinguished Scholarships, which go to the top 15 entrants in the MSU Alumni Distinguished Scholarship competition. These are renewable, and they cover tuition, fees, room and board, and a stipend of $1,000. There are also awards for the finalists and semi-finalists.
  • The Merit Recognition Scholarship, which goes to an out-of-state National Merit Finalist who named the university as a school of first choice. It brings $4,000 a year, plus room and board.
  • The Academic Merit Scholarship-Catherine Hooper Fredin Award, which is given to a National Merit Scholar who will major in science or technology.



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