5 Ways to Maximize Merit-Based Aid

This article is slated to be updated with the latest FAFSA, Scholarship, and Financial Information. For more updated information, please refer to our 2023 and 2024 articles.

Merit-based aid financial aid (typically scholarships) is financial aid that colleges give to students based on their grades and test scores. Maximizing merit-based financial aid is particularly important for middle-income families who don’t qualify for most of the need-based aid that’s available. Here are five ways to increase your student’s chances of qualifying for more merit-based financial aid.

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1. Get good grades in college prep classes

Having good grades (and a good grade point average) is the first step in earning merit-based financial aid. The classes you take and the grades you receive in those classes is extremely important. Students should do their best to enroll in challenging classes in which they can be successful, and classes that reflect their post-secondary interests. For example, students who may be interested in engineering should have more courses in math and science.

2. Standardized test scores still matter

While many schools are moving away from using SAT and ACT test scores for admissions purposes, test scores are still important when it comes to maximizing merit-based financial aid. Investing wisely in tutoring to increase standardized test scores may pay great dividends in the future. 

You know your child better than anyone. Look at their test score history and see pay attention to percentile rankings. It may not be realistic for your child to move from a 21 to a 33 on the ACT, but even an increase from 21 to 25 could put them in a different scholarship bracket.

To use an example from my own life, I spent approximately $500 dollars on ACT tutoring for my daughter, which helped increase her ACT score from a 23 to a 28, which in turn boosted her merit aid from $2,000/year to $8,000/year. Over four years, this will save us tens of thousands of dollars. 

To find a good tutor, ask your high school counselor or neighbors with older children for recommendations, or consider online test prep courses such as the ones offered by the Princeton Review.

3. Aim to be in the top of the incoming freshmen class

Being in the top 20% of the incoming freshman class in terms of GPA and test scores will likely increase your student’s merit-based financial aid. It may also allow your child admission into the college or university honors college, which often comes with perks including additional scholarships.

To get a sense of where your child will stand, search “freshman class profile” along with the name of the college or university your student is interested in. Schools typically publish academic statistics about the middle 50% of their most recently-admitted freshman class. If your student has a GPA and test scores above that published range, they’ll have a better chance of qualifying for more merit-based financial aid. 

For instance, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign freshman class profile includes the following statistics about the middle 50% of its incoming fall 2020 freshman class:

  • GPA: 3.47-3.94 (based on a 4.0 scale)
  • ACT score: 28-34
  • SAT score (no writing): 1290-1490

If your child is applying for admission in fall 2021 and has a GPA and test scores near or above the upper limit of those ranges, they’ll be more likely to qualify for merit aid.

4. Show interest in the school starting early on 

Try to visit (or virtually visit) colleges and universities during your student’s junior year of high school. Schedule an appointment with the admissions office, take a walking tour and attend junior and/or senior high school visit days. Also, most colleges have an admissions representative that will be working with you and your child. Communicating with the admissions representative will show your child’s interest and may attract more merit-based financial aid money.  

5. Apply early, commit late and fill out the FAFSA

Submit your college applications and essays as soon as possible so you can get them in while schools still have merit-based financial aidmoney to give away. Even if you apply early, you typically do not need to commit until May 1 and sometimes, waiting to commit may get your student additional merit-based financial aid money late in the final process. 

Also, complete your FAFSA as soon as possible in the fall of your student’s senior year of high school — it opens on October 1 each year — and send it to the colleges and universities your student is considering. Don’t think that you make too much money and that the FAFSA is a waste of time. Although it’s primarily used for need-based aid, it’s sometimes also required in order to receive merit money.  

If you are not happy with your child’s financial aid package, you can file a financial aid appeal — the worst they can say is no. While you may not get large sums of money from an appeal, any free money is better than no free money.



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