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How to Get Merit Aid from Colleges

When it comes to money for college, getting "merit aid" tops the list for many. But what exactly is merit aid and how do you get it?

Merit aid can significantly reduce college costs, especially at private colleges. Learn how to be at the front of the line when colleges hand out their merit aid.

What Is Merit Aid?

"Merit aid" is a general term for grants, scholarships, and tuition discounts that a college offers certain applicants, based on the value they would bring to the college. The aid comes from the college's own resources, so the college is free to award it based on the criteria they choose.

How to Deserve Merit Aid

Merit aid isn't awarded based on your financial need, although need may be a secondary factor. It is usually awarded based on your academic achievement, or other talents such as athletic or musical ability. In some cases, the college may simply want to attract students to meet their enrollment goals.

How to Determine If a College Is Likely to Offer You Merit Aid

The secret to getting generous merit aid is to apply to colleges that are likely to want you. How do you find those colleges? Talk to admissions staff and research the college using College Match. Look for answers to the following questions:

  • Does the college even offer merit aid? Some colleges, especially highly selective ones, offer only aid based on financial need, although merit may be a factor.
  • Does the college have a history of providing generous merit aid? What percentage of students typically receives merit aid? What is the average size of merit awards given each year of college? How many merit scholarships does the college offer and what are the amounts?
  • Would you be considered a top student at the college? Your chances will be better for merit aid if your GPA and test scores fall within the top 25 percent of the college's most recently admitted freshman class.
  • Could the college value you in other ways? The college may be short of what you can offer. You might get a merit award based on your major, gender, home state, musical talent, sports ability, background, ethnicity, and more.
  • Are you excited about the college? Many colleges reward students who show strong interest in attending. You can show your interest via campus visits, interviews, and in your application essays.

How to Apply for Merit Aid

Simply submitting your application will put you in the running for merit aid at some colleges. But there may be a separate application process, at least for specific merit-based scholarships. And there may be further requirements, such as completing financial aid applications or interviews. If the process is not clear, ask the admissions department.

Some Cautions About Merit Aid

Just like any scholarship or grant you receive, your merit aid will count toward meeting your financial need. Merit awards may also come with rules for keeping them, such as maintaining a certain GPA. And some merit aid may be for freshman year only and not be renewable for subsequent years.

What's Next?

  • Use College Match to search for colleges by the percentage of freshmen receiving merit aid, with and without financial need.
  • Use College Match to look up colleges and see the average size of merit-based aid awarded to freshmen and to all undergraduates.
  • Visit the Admissions Tracker to see the merit awards given to students who were accepted at your favorite colleges.
  • Use the Scholarship Finder to locate merit scholarships from providers not associated with colleges.

Note: Financial information provided on this site is of a general nature and may not apply to your situation. Contact a financial or tax advisor before acting on such information.

For Students Age 18 and Older

Have you received a Personal Invitation to apply for a Student Credit card?

Learn how to qualify for a Personal Invitation to apply for a Student Credit Card


1st Financial Bank believes students who pick colleges wisely will also want to learn how to use credit cards wisely.

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COLLEGEdata Dollars are
points you earn by
completing certain
COLLEGEdata activities

Ways to earn
COLLEGEdata Dollars:

  • Complete your Admissions Profile.
  • Add colleges to your College Choices.
  • Update your Admissions Statuses.
  • Use the College Match tool.

What are COLLEGEdata Dollars (CD$)?

COLLEGEdata Dollars (CD$) are points you earn by completing certain COLLEGEdata activities. The maximum number of CD$ you can redeem is 5000. Once you have earned at least 2500 CD$, you can redeem them for $25, which will be provided to you on a Loyalty Card, and once you earn another 2500 CD$, you can redeem those CD$ for a second $25, which will also be provided to you on a Loyalty Card.

Earn points and redeem them for
U.S. Dollars

Complete certain COLLEGEdata activities (for example, signing up, starting your Admissions Profile, searching for colleges, calculating your chances for admission, searching for scholarships, updating your Profile with your admission decisions). Each activity is worth a specific amount of points (CD$). You can redeem the points you earn for U.S. Dollars that will be issued to you in the form of a 1st Financial Bank USA Loyalty Mastercard®.

How do I earn COLLEGEdata Dollars?

You can earn CD$ by completing certain COLLEGEdata activities. As soon as you sign up and activate your COLLEGEdata account, explore COLLEGEdata and begin completing COLLEGEdata activities to earn points.

Here is a full list of COLLEGEdata activities for which you may earn CD$ and the number of CD$ you can earn by completing each activity.*

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Check your CD$ Dashboard at the bottom of the page to view your CD$ balance, find other activities that you can complete to earn CD$, and redeem the CD$ you have earned for U.S. Dollars.