College Scholarships

Most parents with high-performing students assume that their straight-A, top-scoring student will be offered many college scholarships.  They are frequently shocked and disappointed when they realize that many top-tier colleges don’t offer merit-based scholarships – getting in is the only reward these schools give!

This article summarizes three mistakes and assumptions people make about financial aid and potential college scholarships.  Here’s our summary, with some additional thoughts:

Private scholarships

The largest amount of money that helps students pay for college each year, aside from federal grants and loans, comes from colleges themselves.  Of the approximately $237 billion that is given to help students pay for college, $42 billion comes in the form of direct college scholarships – mostly based on merit.  Only a quarter of that amount, about $11 billion, comes from private scholarships.  Most of these are small dollar amounts, highly competitive and one-time grants.  Your time is better spent researching colleges that give substantial merit awards, which are generally renewable for four years, rather than being the 307,612th applicant for a highly-competitive, one-time $500 scholarship.  Don’t let the high sticker price of private colleges scare you off – many out-of-state private schools give generous college scholarships that bring their cost down to LESS than the cost of an in-state public university!

College scholarshipsMerit scholarships

Michelle’s comments here are spot-on:  you should ONLY expect to be offered a merit scholarship if your grades and test scores are in the top 25% of a college’s applicant pool.  You can generally find this information on each college’s admissions office web page, and you should use to research whether the colleges on your list have a history of giving merit-based college scholarships at all!  The more competitive the college, the more difficult it is to be in this elite group, and the less likely it is that the college even offers such rewards.

Top-ranked colleges

This is the harsh reality that often causes such consternation.  Many of the top-ranked US News colleges have made the determination that they will use most, or all, of their available scholarship funds to assist students who don’t have the ability to pay for their high-priced education.  In other words, they have prioritized NEED-based aid over merit-based aid.  They either don’t offer merit scholarships at all, or they offer only a few.  We recommend that students and parents review the merit-based giving information on for all of the colleges on their list prior to applying, so that they won’t be disappointed in the end.

Beyond financial considerations, we always recommend that students look beyond the rankings.  They provide some information, but they certainly can’t tell you if any of these schools would be a good match for you.

Athletic Scholarships

Finally, many parents push their students to excel in sports, sometimes spending thousands or tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours, sometimes at the expense of getting good grades.  If you take nothing else from this NPR story about athletic scholarships, take note of this important fact:  fewer than 2 percent of high school athletes get athletic scholarships – and MOST of the time, athletic scholarships cover only a fraction of costs.  Sometimes these “scholarships” cover only the cost of books or travel.  Additionally, parents often think that athletic ability will make up for poor academic performance – it won’t!

The bottom line is that there are MANY more opportunities for academic scholarships than for athletic scholarships.  As long as you do your research and learn which schools do offer them, you will find more money this way than by hours and hours of sports practice.

We are often asked by families very late in the process – after submitting their college applications – where to look for scholarships.  While we certainly recommend that students look for outside scholarships (here, here and here are all good places to start), we advise that the best way to find college scholarships is to include colleges with a history of generous giving, and include them on your college list.

This post, authored by Evelyn Jerome-Alexander, was originally published on the Quesbook Test Prep website blog.  We’ve updated it with additional information in this post.

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