Have you seen the stories on the news about the millions of dollars in scholarships awarded to the graduates of a particular high school? Or maybe a story about one particular student who received over a million dollars in scholarships? These are great stories and give families hope for paying for college. After all, if someone else did it, why shouldn’t their kids be able to?

And they are absolutely right. But there’s a problem. Most people don’t get past the headlines and for those that do, the articles often lack critical information. Or maybe it’s there but too many families don’t realize the significance of the information. In the majority of cases, the students received scholarships from the colleges they applied to.

Why is this important?


You can’t accept all of the scholarships offered

The first reason is that the kid really doesn’t have a million dollars in awarded scholarships. The reality is that she can only attend one school so she won’t actually receive any money from the colleges that offered scholarships if she doesn’t enrolled there.

This is how the high school numbers can be so astronomical. If a student is offered just a $10,000 a year merit award from 3 colleges, high schools will report this as $120,000. The student would receive $40,000 over 4 years and multiply it by 3 you get $120,000. It really doesn’t take many students to reach the “millions in scholarships” mark.


You have to apply to colleges that award scholarships

It’s the second reason why this is critical for any families that want to duplicate the results. The students have to apply to specific schools that are going to award merit aid. Students can’t get money from a school they never applied to!

Unfortunately, this is something that too many families don’t realize until after their students have their acceptance and realize the financial aid awards won’t meet their needs.

In most cases, students don’t actually apply for merit scholarships at the colleges they apply to. College automatically consider all students for merit scholarships with the exception for some departmental awards and special competitions. So this means students must find the colleges most likely to award them merit aid.


How it happens in real life

I think the article “How this student was offered $1 million in financial aid – without a perfect SAT or GPA” is a great example of how students can rack up the merit aid. According to the article, the student, Josh Barri, applied to 15 colleges and received more than $1 million in financial aid. And this is what I really love about the article, it states that

Josh’s list of four-year scholarships includes DePaul, $80,000; Catholic University of America, $100,000; University of Portland, $92,000; Seton Hall, $106,500.

In annual terms, the numbers look like this:

Now it’s not clear if these scholarships brought the cost of the schools down so that his family could afford them. At the time, they probably all cost over $50,000. But given that the sticker price for most state flagship universities start at $25,000, these merit scholarships make the schools competitive without considering any other financial aid.

Here’s the thing that people miss when reading the article. Josh would not have received the same amount of money no matter which school he applied to. For the 4 schools we know about, Josh was probably in the top quarter of academic qualifications for the freshman class. Had he applied to other schools where he was in the bottom half of the class, chances are he wouldn’t have been offered any other financial aid than need based aid and much of that would be in loans.


Your college list is your scholarship list

In other words, Josh picked the right schools to apply to. If your college application is also your merit application, that means you must select carefully which colleges to apply to.

Improving students’ chances for merit money isn’t just about improving academic qualifications. It’s equally important to target colleges most likely to offer merit scholarships.

The truth is that not all colleges offer merit money and not all to the same degree. The most competitive colleges in the country do not offer merit scholarships because they don’t have to. They have plenty of students to choose from. Many will explicitly state they don’t offer merit scholarships on their websites.

Others will offer some money but in much more limited amounts or only to a smaller group of students. Again, these tend to be popular schools and ultimately don’t have to offer scholarships for students to attend.


Where to find merit scholarships

Then there are the colleges that will offer generous merit scholarships because they don’t have the name recognition that other colleges have. Or maybe they’re trying to improve their academic qualifications in national rankings. Or maybe they’re trying to attract students outside their usual population base.

In any case, students are much more likely to receive merit scholarships from these colleges. And while Josh may not have selected the colleges based on merit opportunity, he made sure he was a good fit for the schools. So he was the kind of student these schools wanted and therefore offered him merit scholarships as an incentive to attend.

Finding the largest sources of merit money isn’t the same thing as applying to the biggest scholarships you find on a scholarship search website. It’s researching colleges to find which ones offer the most generous merit aid and applying to them. The difference is that you can easily apply to 15 scholarships and only win one or two and then maybe only for $500. If you apply to the right 15 colleges, you can win over $1 million in scholarships. And even if you can only accept one school, it’s still going to be more than $500.