Getting Merit Aid From Test Scores


Eating ramen twice a day and living in a triple with bunk beds so close you can hi-five your roommate are a couple of popular ways to soften the blow to your bank account in college. As appealing as a hot cup of instant ramen can be on a rainy afternoon, budgeting for college is a substantial concern for nearly every student.

College tuition and fees continue to increase annually, faster than financial aid has been able to keep up. Beyond financial aid, scholarships come in a seemingly endless variety. Once you start looking for them, you’ll find they pop up in unexpected places. Scholarships exist for winning greeting card designs, best prom photo, and, my personal favorite, innovative duct tape creations. Luckily, the PSAT, SAT, and ACT are no exception - each test provides scholarship opportunities.


National Merit Scholarship

Taking the PSAT can seem like an unnecessary headache during junior year when classes are typically most stressful and time feels most limited. While the PSAT does provide some preliminary preparation for the real SAT, its true value is that it serves as the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship.

The process takes a bit of time, starting in fall of junior year, with administration of the PSAT.

Nearly a year later, in the fall of senior year, commended students and semifinalists are recognized. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) first selects the top 3-5% of scorers, about 50,000 students. Most, 68%, of these students receive an official letter of commendation, which they can then list on college applications. I was very glad, when applying to colleges, to have the ability to list another item in the “Awards” section. A National Merit Commendation is a perfect thing to add to your awards list, and can help you stand out as an applicant.

The remaining 25-30% of the 50,000 top-scoring students move along to the semifinal round. All semifinalists are sent an application to fill out to have the chance to be selected as a finalist. The application consists of a few components: high school transcript, SAT scores, extracurricular and leadership roles, a 500-600 word personal statement, and a recommendation from the high school principal.

By the winter of senior year, finalists are selected. Most (15,000) of the 16,000 students who apply as semifinalists are selected as finalists. While being selected as a finalist doesn’t carry with it any direct financial reward from the NMSC, it does serve as one qualification factor for “sponsored” scholarships, which we’ll dive into below.  

The long-awaited announcement of National Merit winners occurs in the spring of senior year, typically in March. The winners receive $2,500, which can be reinstated each year of college, for a total of $10,000 in some cases.

Because the students taking the PSAT each year score slightly differently, there is no absolute score cutoff that a student can aim for and be guaranteed a National Merit commendation or scholarship. Some websites estimate score cutoffs for the year prior, but these are not official data. Cutoffs also depend on location, with scores compared within each state. California is among the top scoring states, so is slightly more competitive than some others. Ultimately, beginning test prep before the PSAT is advantageous to reach a top percentile score to snag some of these merit scholarship opportunities early on.

Sponsored Merit Scholarships

Even if a student isn’t selected for the $2,500 National Merit scholarship, they might still be eligible for other sources of some well-earned payback! A student who is selected as a National Merit finalist has a good chance of going on to win a sponsored scholarship. Students who receive letters of commendation, but don’t make it to the finalist level, are still able to apply for these sponsored scholarships, called “Special Scholarships” in these cases.

Sponsored scholarships come in two forms: corporate-sponsored, and college-sponsored. Essentially, it means that these colleges and companies want to award students who have performed well on the PSAT, and are willing to provide the funds for these awards themselves, rather than relying on the National Merit Scholarship Corporation itself. They usually do this as part of a philanthropic arm of the company to give back to the community and help with their education initiatives. A full list of the 2019 sponsors can be found here, and includes a wide range of public and private universities, from University of Florida to Boston College, and many others. Let’s start with the corporate sponsors.


Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship


Corporate-sponsored merit scholarships range widely in award amount and come from companies ranging from Brooks Brothers to Genentech. Regardless of the sponsor, a student will always need to fill in the sponsor’s entry form. These awards vary quite a bit depending on the company sponsor, and the criteria for eligibility are unique. Depending on the company, some scholarships are offered as one-time awards, while others are renewable for each of the four years a student is in college, similar to the $2,500 National Merit scholarship. Additionally, many of these scholarships are directed at students whose parents might work for one of the corporations, or who have specific career interests in a relevant field or region. Genentech, for example, may offer a renewable scholarship to children of employees and/or students with an intention to study STEM subjects in college. The great thing about corporate-sponsored scholarships are that they are transferable, meaning they can be applied to any school you choose to attend.


College-sponsored Merit Scholarship


College-sponsored scholarships all range from $500-$2,500, and are renewable each year of undergrad. Only finalists are eligible for these awards. College-sponsored scholarships are only an option for finalists who haven’t gone on to win the National Merit $2,500 award.

When a student fills out their National Merit Scholarship application, it is important to select one of the colleges listed here as their “first-choice.” This scares many students away who think they may want to list “undecided” until they’ve done their first round of college tours and made a few more pro-con lists. Selecting undecided, however, will automatically disqualify that application from receiving any college-sponsored awards. It is in every student’s best interest, then, to be sure to select their favorite listed college as their “first choice.”

They must also actually apply to this college through the normal application process in order to be considered for the scholarship. One caveat is that students have until May 31st to change this first choice school in their application as long as they haven’t already received a college-sponsored award. Keep in mind, if you are deciding between two top choices, public schools typically award larger scholarships than private schools. Every college sponsor has their own criteria for evaluating students, but will only use the information provided in the main National Merit Scholarship application itself. Once a student is selected as a winner of a college-sponsored award, they are not allowed to transfer the award to another school, unlike the corporate-sponsored awards.

The timeline for these awards changes each year ever so slightly, with 2019’s detailed schedule listed here.


Merit scholarships exist in some form at nearly every college, but sometimes take some sleuthing to find. After the endless pro-con lists and re-ranking and editing, every student comes to their final college application list. A good next step is to go through and check what merit scholarships might be available at each school. Some of these, like the Regents’ Scholarship at all UCs, don’t require any additional applications or paperwork. Others, will have some specific additional criteria like whether the student is in-state or out-of-state. Either way, because these scholarships are “merit-based” and not “need-based,” they will depend largely on GPA and either SAT or ACT scores. The scores needed will vary fairly widely depending on the college, but aiming for the top 75th percentile is a good starting point to reach eligibility for some of these merit awards.


Searching for Merit Scholarships


The most direct resource for merit scholarships will be the college or university’s website. Typically, scholarship information is nested within “Admissions” or “Financial Aid” pages. Make sure to select “incoming freshman” or to look out for that phrase when evaluating a potential scholarship.

Instead of rummaging around every school’s individual site, you can also use some of the scholarship search engines that are available. Unigo is a reputable resource that will have you create a unique profile including details about your test scores, GPA, and other details. Then, Unigo will suggest appropriate scholarships you may want to apply for. is another resource that takes a slightly broader approach. They won’t gather as much information about you to set up your personal account, and are a better resource for seeking out specific scholarships, like all of the potential merit scholarships for incoming freshmen at all California schools. Sallie Mae also has their own scholarship search engine, which can be narrowed down to high school seniors. You’ll need to register for their “Scholarship Search” campaign in order to gain access to the lists of scholarships they’ve compiled. Just by registering, you’re also entered to potentially win $1,000 of non-merit award money for college as well.


Selected Examples


Here is a selection of a few schools offering substantial merit scholarships.

The University of Oregon is a popular destination for many California-grown students suited for the Pacific Northwest. Two merit scholarships exist, the Summit and Apex, that are based on a straightforward combination of GPA and SAT or ACT scores. The best part might be that there is no additional application required, and all applicants are automatically considered for the award. The minimum scores for Summit are 1250 SAT and 26 ACT, with a 3.80 GPA. For Apex, the minimum scores are a 1220 SAT, 25 ACT, and 3.60 GPA. For students moving from out-of-state, Summit Scholarship recipients are granted $10,000 per year, and Apex Scholarship recipients receive $7,5000 per year, though the two can’t be combined.

All UC colleges offer a Regents’ Scholarship for outstanding students, based solely on merit. Again, no additional application is required beyond the standard UC requirements. Though SAT and ACT scores are not posted, some top percentage of scorers from the applicant each year are awarded. UCSD’s Regents’ Scholarship covers $2,000 yearly for four years, while UC Berkeley’s is $2,500 yearly. UCLA states that the top 1.5% of applicants receive the award, which is likely a similar statistic for each UC.

“Regents’ Scholarships” must have a nice ring to them, because many colleges across the country have a similarly titled award. Pepperdine has a “Regents’ Scholar” program that relies solely on GPA and SAT or ACT score to the top 10% of accepted students, at $7,500 per year for four years. This scholarship is also awarded automatically without any need for an additional tedious application process.

Baylor University is a noteworthy case, especially for students already interested in applying. They offer various levels of the “Gold Scholarship” based on class rank and ACT score, covering a range of $7,000 to $22,000 per year. Assuming a student is in the top tenth of their class based on GPA, their financial reward from the Gold Scholarship can still be altered significantly by an ACT score. A student in the top tenth of their graduating class and a 30 ACT will automatically be awarded $18,000 per year. If the same student improved their ACT to a 32, they would be awarded $21,000 annually instead.

If the examples listed above aren’t schools you’re considering, don’t be discouraged! Nearly every school provides some merit-based scholarship opportunities, with different unique criteria. Importantly, too, there is absolutely no harm in ever applying. There will also probably be a few colleges on your final list that feel like you’ll be less likely to attend, whether it’s because they’re such a strong safety or such a far reach. Don’t disregard these schools when searching and applying for scholarships.

I had the opportunity to receive a substantial merit scholarship for a small school in Walla Walla, Washington called Whitman College that wasn’t initially one of the top five of my favorite choices. Part of the scholarship process was flying all of the finalists out to Walla Walla for a long weekend, where we stayed with current students, toured the campus, and had dinners with the dean and president. It was a fantastic experience, and I made friends on the trip that I’ve kept to this day. It was also a great first experience travelling for an interview, and practicing networking skills that have come in handy years later.

Upon my return home, I found myself making my final college decision between just three schools, with Whitman among them. Financial considerations are an important part of college selection that many people stray away from, because it’s easier to compare dining halls, freshman dorms, and extracurricular clubs. Nonetheless, with student debt on the rise, it’s important to consider this decision with a full perspective of the financial implications. A school you were interested in might become a school you absolutely love, and merit scholarships can be one of many factors in that transition.

The Bottom Line

The potential promise of thousands of dollars can really come in handy as motivation to finish that annoying Saturday practice test. To get through dense and tiring history textbook reading, some students put their favorite jelly beans or M&Ms at the end of each paragraph, to snack on as a reward. Imagine instead of a few measly watermelon jelly beans, having a few hundred dollar bills at the end of each score improvement. By staying ahead of the National Merit Scholarship deadlines and college-choice requirements, and double-checking the merit options at the schools you’re applying to, you could finally live the dream of getting paid to study, rather than the other way around!

- Bridget Vaughan


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