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A “competitive” merit scholarship is one that is not guaranteed. This type is basically the opposite of the “automatic” merit scholarships I described in my last post. Once again, I am talking specific about “institutional” merit scholarships, meaning scholarships offered directly by colleges.

With this type of merit scholarship, the college decides who will and will not receive a scholarship. Competitive merit scholarships may or may not require a separate application.

I like to put competitive merit scholarships into three different categories:

  1. “Close to” Automatic Scholarships – These competitive scholarships may look like they are automatic when you first read the details on the college’s website. Some clues that they aren’t automatic would be language that says the student “may be eligible” or is “eligible to be considered” if specific GPA and/or ACT/SAT criteria are met.
  2. “Black Box” Scholarships – In the software development world, a “black box” is a system or application where you know the inputs and you receive the outputs, but you have no idea what the system did with the inputs in order to get those outputs. The processing that goes on inside the system or application is a secret. That’s similar to a whole category of competitive scholarships. The school will tell you what minimum requirements must be met to apply for the scholarship, but they don’t tell you exactly how they will go about selecting the winners from everyone who meets the requirements.
  3. Competition Scholarships – These usually include an application that must be filled out, a selection of candidates from the applications, and an on-campus competition. Any candidates who make the first cut and are chosen to compete come to campus for a scholarship day. During this scholarship day, there may be several forms of competition. Some of these are a personal interview, an exam, a writing assignment, or a speaking assignment. Usually one winner, or a small number of winners, is chosen for a very large scholarship. Sometimes everyone who makes it to the on-campus competition receives a small scholarship amount like $500 – $2,000. Every school does things a little differently.

With competitive merit scholarships, the college may or may not disclose how many students will be awarded scholarships each year. Additionally, the college may or may not list the exact scholarship amounts on their website.

In the database, there are over 7,750 competitive scholarships listed. Over 2,250 of these are offered in amounts including half tuition and more up to a full ride. Another 2,600 are offered in amounts that vary, most often meaning that the school does not disclose the exact scholarship amounts.

Competitive merit scholarships are much more commonly offered by colleges than automatic merit scholarships. However, they will leave you guessing whether your student will receive a scholarship at all and how much that scholarship will be. If your student is going to compete for some large competitive merit scholarships to be able to afford certain colleges, my recommendation is that he or she also apply to schools that will offer him or her automatic merit scholarships. This way, your student can wait until all scholarship offers have been received to make a final decision, knowing that there are some schools to choose from with definite scholarship amounts.

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