merit scholarships for high school seniorsmerit scholarships for high school seniors

Applying for college can be an expensive endeavor. Thankfully, many merit scholarships for high school seniors are available specifically for high-achieving high school seniors to help fund their college education. With some preparation and planning, you can set yourself up to take advantage of these financial aid opportunities.

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Merit scholarships reward students for outstanding academic achievement, leadership, extracurricular involvement, volunteer work, and other areas. They differ from need-based financial aid in that they are earned through hard work, not based on family financial circumstances.

The key to securing merit scholarships is to start planning early, typically at the beginning of junior year. This gives you plenty of time to research options, prepare stellar applications, and meet all deadlines. It also allows you to accrue accomplishments over your high school career that will impress scholarship committees.

Follow this comprehensive guide on how to find and apply for merit scholarships to help fund your college education.

Research Scholarship Options

Many merit scholarships are offered each year to high-achieving high school seniors. Here are some of the main types to consider:

College-Specific Scholarships

Most colleges and universities offer merit scholarships, with criteria and award amounts varying between schools. Academic records, test scores, essays, interviews, and extracurriculars are typical factors considered. Research options at your desired schools early and understand what it takes to be competitive.

Employer/Parent Workplace Scholarships

Many companies and professional organizations offer college scholarships to employees’ children. Ask your parents if their employers provide such opportunities. These often go unclaimed each year.

State and National Competitions

Scholarships are awarded through state/national merit scholarship programs – like National Merit – for high standardized test scores. Entry is usually based on PSAT/NMSQT scores. High ACT/SAT scores also qualify students for certain state and national awards.

Private Scholarships

Numerous private donors and foundations provide merit scholarships with a wide variety of eligibility criteria. Use reputable online scholarship databases to uncover options based on your accomplishments and interests. More on researching private scholarships later.

Pad Your Resume

To stand out in the competitive merit scholarship landscape, you need an impressive record of academic achievement, extracurricular involvement and leadership. Making intentional moves starting junior year to pad your resume can pay off hugely via increased scholarship funding.

Here are tips for bolstering your scholarship candidacy over junior and senior year:

  • Take the most rigorous course load filled with Honors, Advanced Placement and dual enrollment college classes. Earn consistently high grades across all subjects.
  • Study hard and retake standardized admission tests like the SAT and ACT to improve your scores.
  • Take on leadership roles in extracurricular clubs or teams, academic honor societies, or volunteer organizations.
  • Apply for summer academic enrichment programs related to your intended college major to showcase intellectual curiosity.
  • Pursue meaningful volunteering, research, internships or work experience in your expected field of study.
  • Cultivate strong relationships with teachers, coaches, employers and other mentors who may later write you recommendation letters.

The overarching goal is illustrating a sustained commitment to academic excellence and impressive leadership. Scholarship reviewers want well-rounded students who will positively impact their colleges and communities.

Create an Organized System

Applying to numerous merit scholarships, each with different requirements and deadlines, demands an organized system to track everything. Here is a process that works:

Set Up Spreadsheets

Dedicate one spreadsheet to list general scholarships you plan to apply for. Include name, amount, eligibility criteria and deadlines. Make a separate spreadsheet to track college-specific scholarship options.

Build Files

For each scholarship opportunity, create a file folder either physically or digitally that contains requirements, deadlines, application, recommendation letters needed and other relevant documentation.

Calendar Reminders

Use a calendar system or planner to set alerts leading up to scholarship deadlines so you give yourself plenty of time to put together applications. Building in buffers guards against unforeseen issues.

Customize Applications

Keep copies of all non-submitted scholarship applications as Google Docs or Word documents. This allows you to reuse certain elements (essays, resumes, recommendation letters) in multiple applications but customize other components.

Staying meticulously organized is vital when jugging numerous scholarship application deadlines. Prepare early so you can submit polished materials.

Write Standout Applications

Making your scholarship applications leap off the page requires going beyond just meeting stated requirements. Follow these tips for crafting memorable submissions:


  • Feature relevant academic, extracurricular and volunteer accomplishments at the top under sections like “Awards & Honors”, “Leadership” or “Research & Internships”.
  • Emphasize achievements that align to targeted scholarship criteria through resume content/formatting.
  • Keep formatting clean/consistent and have teachers/mentors review for polish.


  • Brainstorm interesting angles beyond clichés and let your unique personality and passions shine.
  • Address prompt specifics, but creatively weave connections to relevant accomplishments or goals.
  • Strike a professional yet approachable tone and conversational style.
  • Have teachers and parents read essays for feedback before finalizing.

Short Answer Questions

  • Concisely respond to each component of multi-faceted questions. Use full allotted length.
  • Provide context around achievements and numbers cited from resumes. Quantify outcomes.
  • Proofread closely to catch minor errors which could undermine otherwise strong applications.


  • For scholarships requiring live interviews, practice to polish your public speaking ability.
  • Prepare stories that highlight achievements listed on your resume/application by explaining the full context.
  • Research typical scholarship interview questions to consider thoughtful responses beforehand.

Conduct Private Scholarship Searches

Hundreds of private scholarships from charitable foundations and industry organizations award funding based on specific criteria. Performing customized database searches uncovers options aligned to your accomplishments and college/career goals.

Follow these steps for productive private scholarship searches:

Use Reputable Databases

Established scholarship databases like FastWeb, and Niche contain vast catalogs of private financial aid opportunities. Create user profiles highlighting your experiences, interests and more to receive listings filtered to your uniqueness.

Start Broad, Then Refine

Initially cast a wide net by searching keywords like “high school senior scholarships” or fields of study. Once first bout of results comes back, refine parameters by state, award amount, essay requirements, leadership criteria and other attributes to narrow options.

Search Annually

New scholarships are established all the time, so search early in senior year then repeat a few months later. Customize parameters each cycle based on updated accomplishments or specific attributes still needed on your roster.

Save Opportunities

As you uncover relevant private scholarships through searches, save them to either your general or college-specific tracking spreadsheets discussed earlier. This organization allows you to easily track and monitor deadlines.

Conducting meticulous, thorough searches across reputable scholarship databases allows you to uncover ideal opportunities that specifically fit your experiences among the sea of options.

Secure Strong Recommendations

Most merit scholarship applications require personal recommendations highlighting impressive attributes like leadership, character, work ethic and talents. Here is how to secure standout recommendations:

Who To Ask

Select teachers and mentors who know you well and can speak in-depth about your strengths aligned to targeted scholarship criteria. Typically application instructions suggest appropriate recommenders like educators or advisers.

Make Personal Requests

Email teachers/mentors politely asking if they feel comfortable writing a strong recommendation showcasing relevant accomplishments. Offer to provide your resume and any other materials that might inform their letter writing.

Give Them Time

Make recommendation requests at least a month before deadlines to allow adequate letter-writing time. Provide recommenders early notice of multiple upcoming deadlines as well.

Follow Up

Politely check in with recommenders as deadlines approach to confirm if they need any other items from you. Send thank you notes after they submit letters on your behalf.

Securing persuasive letters of recommendation is a vital scholarship application component requiring advance planning and follow through.

Apply to College Before Scholarships Close

Since most merit scholarships require acceptance to the associated college before disbursing actual awards, apply to desired schools well in advance of pressing scholarship deadlines. It can take months to receive admission decisions, so build in time buffers. Reach out to admissions offices about expediting decision notifications if needed based on impending scholarship closes.


Competing for coveted merit scholarships demands diligent work ethic and attention to detail but pays off immensely in college savings.

Follow this structured approach throughout high school to set yourself up for scholarship application success:

  1. Thoroughly research different scholarship types based on eligibility
  2. Pad your resume with sought-after accomplishments building junior/senior year
  3. Organize options using master spreadsheets and application files
  4. Write compelling applications highlighing your achievement aligned to criteria
  5. Uncover relevant private scholarships through custom database searches
  6. Secure persuasive recommendations that reinforce your strengths
  7. Apply to college early to enable scholarship finalization prior to deadlines

Committing focused energy towards merit scholarship applications leads to less student debt and financial freedom to fully immerse yourself in the enriching college experience ahead.

Merit Scholarships for High School Seniors Table 1

Summarizes the key scholarship options and recommendations covered in this article which ambitious students can reference to jumpstart their scholarship application planning:

Scholarship TypeKey Tips
College-SpecificResearch options at your target schools and understand competitiveness
Employer/Parent WorkplaceAsk parents if their employers offer student scholarship programs
State & National CompetitionsTake PSAT/NMSQT seriously to qualify for programs like National Merit
Private ScholarshipsUse filters in reputable databases to find options matching your criteria

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