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Busting Merit Scholarships Myths

Merit scholarships are a powerful tool for helping families pay for college, but myths persist about who can and can’t earn them.

Merit aid is money for college based on a students’ efforts and achievements, not their (or their parents’) financial situation.

Unlike loans, scholarship money does not get paid back. Colleges or private entities want to support the educational goals of students who have demonstrated a variety of characteristics or achievements.

Merit aid can be awarded to wealthy as well as middle-class families who don’t qualify for need-based financial aid. It can also go to students from lowincome families. It’s based on a student’s accomplishments, academic or otherwise. They don’t have to be geniuses or athletes to earn a merit scholarship.

It’s never too soon to start looking into obtaining merit aid. Your child can begin using their achievements to lower the cost of college as early as middle school, if not before. The strategies they use to win money for university will help them get admitted to more schools.

After consulting with families nationwide, here’s my list of the seven most common, costly myths about merit scholarships, along with the truth of the matter:

Scholarships are for high school seniors.

Most scholarships are for high school seniors, but not all. There are private merit scholarships available as early as middle school and all the way through graduate school. Google offers a merit scholarship for kindergartners.

Merit scholarships are only for grades and sports.

Merit scholarships reward all types of achievement, including grades, sports, SAT/ACT scores, community service, leadership, hobbies, heritage, religion, challenges, passion and visual arts.

Scholarships are for students whose families don’t earn enough to pay for college.

Merit aid is not based on financial need. It’s the student’s achievements that are evaluated. Meanwhile, need-based scholarships, also called financial aid, are for students who demonstrate financial need according to specific formulas.

Students need to write essays to win merit scholarships.

Many colleges offer merit scholarships based on the student’s admissions application without a separate scholarship essay. While most private scholarships do require essays, some may ask for a video, a short answer, a poem or a photograph in response to a prompt.

Note: I don’t recommend participating in random drawings where students enter their information in “no essay” contests. Often marketing tools designed to gather information about collegebound families, these drawings are based on luck, with tons of students competing for them.

The best way to find scholarships is to sign up on databases such as Fastweb.com and Scholarships.com.

Lowering college costs requires strategy and a game plan based on each student’s uniqueness. The more well-chosen merit scholarships a student pursues, the more opportunities to win money for college. This includes conducting custom internet searches for private merit aid and applying to colleges that will likely offer large, renewable institutional merit scholarships.

Students will find out if they won merit scholarships from colleges when they find out if they were admitted.

Scholarship offers from colleges may be included in the admission packet or they may arrive weeks later in a separate letter or email. Be sure to regularly check all email addresses for timesensitive scholarship and college information.

Sports are great way to pay for college.

Only 2 percent of high school athletes are offered athletic scholarships. Families often mistakenly dedicate a lot of time, energy and financial resources to sports expecting to win huge athletic scholarships to pay for college. There are a lot of reasons for teens to participate in sports, but counting on athletics to pay for college isn’t one of them.

The key now is to put merit scholarships to work for you. Pursue private merit scholarships early and apply to colleges where the student is expected to win large, renewable merit scholarships.

Winning money for college is great. Plus, the nonfinancial benefits of students using their own efforts to contribute to the cost of their college education can be priceless.


As published in the Thousand Oaks Acorn.


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