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University scholarships: What, why and how? – part one

University scholarships: What, why and how? – part one

Academic merit scholarships in the US

With the price tag that comes with a university education, particularly in the US, it’s no wonder that scholarships are in high demand. Being aware of what is available, why universities offer scholarships and how you can maximize your chances of receiving one will help you navigate this area of the university application and acceptance process.

In this three-part blog post series, we’ll break down academic merit scholarships and athletic scholarships in the US and UK.

What are merit scholarships like in the US?

In the US, academic merit scholarships are offered to students who have a high GPA, strong academic record, and impressive exam scores. Ivy League schools like Princeton, Brown, and Harvard don’t offer any type of merit scholarships so universities and colleges that are not Ivy League schools offer scholarships to qualified students as a reward and an incentive. Sometimes a school will offer a student a scholarship early in the application process so that they begin thinking about the school and consider it more seriously.

The average academic scholarship offer is about $20,000 per year, which can reduce the total tuition by a third. Merit scholarships come directly from the school’s funds, unlike need-based aid which is only for US citizens and comes from the American government. Because of this difference, universities and colleges can offer merit scholarships to international students, although good grades and test scores are the first criteria that will be considered whether the student is from out of the country or not. This is why a student must focus on their academics throughout their high school career.

What are colleges looking for?

A major advantage for consideration for a merit scholarship is full engagement in the IB curriculum. Colleges worldwide recognize the rigor of the IB program and value students who come from a challenging curriculum that prepares them so well for college.

For example, a college will notice a student who challenges themselves in four HL courses versus three, or a student who predicts quite high in their overall IB predictions. Additionally, experience with the Extended Essay demonstrates to schools a student’s ability to do genuine research on a specific topic, a talent greatly respected by universities.

Writing an excellent application essay is also a key factor. Some schools consider the application essay to be an example of an applicant’s verbal skills and potential. If a school is considering a student for a scholarship, they might ask them to write an additional supplement about why the student wants to attend that particular university or why they feel they are deserving of the scholarship. Some universities will offer scholarships to students who have engaged in leadership or community service, but even in these cases, a student’s academic record and SAT/ACT score will be the deciding factors.

Is there a difference between offers from public and private universities?

There is a distinct difference between the merit scholarship offered by a public or a private university. It is more likely that an academic merit scholarship will come from a private school because the funding for public schools comes from the state’s government. This means that their first responsibility is to spend money on local students as opposed to international or out-of-state students.

Private universities have more expensive tuition than public ones. But oftentimes the annual $60,000+ price tag will come down by $20,000 or more. This makes it more in line with the tuition for a public university, making it a more attractive choice.

What’s the best program for scholarships?

The best program, in any case, is the one you feel suits you and your goals the best. And it’s pretty clear that’s not always the most competitive or popular program. Being accepted to a university and receiving an academic merit scholarship can be done by choosing a specific program that’s less selective while still being of interest. If there’s a program or major that a school would like to build up or fill, there could be an incentive for the admissions officers to look more closely at a student who shows a really strong interest in that particular area and offer them a scholarship.

There are so many career-oriented students so there is no shortage of kids applying to business, law, and engineering programs. However, choosing a particular major where the program is less selective – nutrition, English, history, or philosophy, for example – it can maximize a student’s chances of getting into their favorite school and studying something they’re really passionate about.

Final thoughts

What is important for students and their families to know is that these academic scholarships are based on merit and on the idea that a candidate has done something meritorious to receive the scholarship. If you want a leg up, take advantage of the summer break between school years by doing community service or completing an internship before Grades 11 and 12. Participating in these sorts of activities make a student more attractive to colleges, compared to students who don’t do much during the summer.

An outstanding GPA and high test scores combined with experiences that demonstrate your leadership skills and strengths outside of the classroom will distinguish you as a scholarship candidate, but also as a student. Study hard and work closely with your academic counselors to identify these scholarships. Your commitment will definitely be rewarded.


Great IGCSE, IB and A-Level results in class and on exams are an important part of a strong university application. Our teachers and university guidance counselors use their vast experience and knowledge to help you succeed and meet your goals at our private high school, and beyond.