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Finding and Applying for Merit-Based Scholarships

If you don't qualify for need-based scholarships or grants -- either because you, your spouse, or your family earns too much money to get federal financial aid, or for any other reason -- merit-based scholarships are another option to consider to get money for college. Financial aid through merit-based scholarships is a great option for students who excelled in high school with excellent grades, exceptional standardized test scores (SAT and ACT), and other achievements, such as artistic or athletic awards and honors. Many merit-based scholarships also take into account extracurricular involvement and volunteer work, so if you also have these on your record, all the better. Some merit scholarships also consider financial need in their award decisions, but the primary criteria will be based on performance -- whether academic, athletic, or artistic (or some combination of these). Let's take a look at some steps you can take to find merit-based scholarships you qualify for, and improve your odds of winning one.

1. Ask Each College You're Interested in What Merit Scholarships are Available

The first place to look for merit-based scholarships is the colleges and universities you're interested in attending. Inquire early on with the financial aid office to find out which scholarships are available. Most public and private universities offer a variety, and the criteria for each differs, so be sure to get all the details. Find out what the selection criteria is, whether an interview in required, all required application materials, deadlines, and submission guidelines.

2. Search FastWeb for Merit-Based Scholarships offers a great search engine for finding other merit-based scholarships you may qualify for, and the tool also helps efficiently weed out scholarships you are highly unlikely to qualify for, which can save you a lot of time.

3. Search the Public Library for Merit-Based Scholarships

Your local public library has many resources to help you find merit-based scholarships. Ask the librarian for assistance in finding the appropriate publications, and be sure to check the copyright dates on all books you consult to make sure you are reviewing up-to-date information.

4. Apply for Many Merit Based Scholarships

The more awards you apply for, the higher your chances of receiving one (or more!). Start your scholarships search early, preferably by your junior year of high school, so you can start gathering your materials way ahead of time. Applying for multiple scholarships can be a time-consuming process, so the more time you give yourself, the better off you'll be.

5. Don't Be Shy About Applying Twice for Merit-Based Scholarships

If you don't win a specific scholarship you think you qualify the first time around, consider applying the next year. (And, if you did win, don't forget to reapply!). You can also ask the review team assigned to the scholarship for a copy of their notes on your application. Some scholarship programs allow applicants to review the notes on their application, and addressing these concerns can greatly improve your chances of winning a scholarship if you reapply the following year.

6. Set Deadlines and Meet Them for Merit-Based Scholarship Applications

As you organize all scholarship materials, be sure to set all important deadlines on your calendar, and set up reminders for yourself so that you will meet all important dates in the scholarship application process.

7. Review Your Scholarship Application and Ask For a Parent or Teacher to Review It

Once you have answered all application questions and written the essays and are ready to finalize it, be sure to give it a second read-through and a thorough proofread. Also consider asking a parent, teacher, or mentor to read the application - particularly your essays - to make sure that all your points are clear and that your have backed up your points with examples and facts. Adjust anything that seems unclear or could be strengthened.

8. Get Great Recommendations for Your Scholarships Application

Early in your high school career, begin taking note of which teachers, mentors, community members and others who know you would make good recommenders for your college applications and scholarship applications. When the time comes, politely ask these people if they would be willing to write you a recommendation for your scholarship application. Good candidate to write you an application should know you well, but not so well that they appear biased (for this reason, anyone related to you should definitely not write you a letter of recommendation). Be sure to give them plenty of notice about the deadlines so that they have adequate time to write the letter, and thank them -- either in person or with a thank you note -- afterward.

9. Prepare for Scholarship Interviews

Some merit scholarships will require a personal interview as part of the application process. Be sure to practice for this interview beforehand. Your high school guidance counselor may be able to help you practice for this interview, and may even have access to previous award winners to find out what types of questions you are likely to be asked. Be sure to dress professionally, and be on time, polite, and thoughtful. While an interview can be intimidating, remember that you can take your time and think through your responses rather than jumping on every answer with a memorized reply.

10. Follow Up on all Scholarship Applications

Following submission of your scholarship materials and interview, be sure to follow up with the review committee with a simple thank-you note to thank them for the interview and to let them know that you can send any additional information if needed to consider your application. Be patient. The scholarship review process can be lengthy as the applicants are often numerous and competitive. Don't be pushy in requesting a response, but be sure to follow up on any requests for additional information quickly.  

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