In this brave new world of few or no school sports, extracurricular activities and standardized tests, many students are wondering how they will qualify for merit aid. First: Merit aid hasn’t gone away. Second: The majority of merit aid goes to good students, not good athletes or musicians.

Families who are concerned about athletic scholarships might take heart knowing this: In 2019-2020, colleges awarded almost $69 billion in institutional grant aid. Of that, less than $4 billion went to athletic scholarships.

The purpose of merit aid is to get students to enroll in college. When pursuing dream schools and reach schools, hearing about single-digit acceptance rates and the like, it’s easy to forget that for the most part, college is a buyer’s market. Of the approximately 1,200-colleges participating in NACAC’s annual college openings survey— schools that still have slots for incoming freshmen after the May 1 acceptance day– about 770 had openings. 2020 was an admittedly unusual year, but the three prior years each averaged well over 500. With undergraduate enrollment down dramatically this year– 4% overall and 16% for freshmen— colleges overall are likely to be courting students in the class of 2021 fairly aggressively. And that means merit aid. (Note: “colleges overall” is not the same as “all colleges.” Admissions at some elite colleges may be the most competitive ever due to deferrals from the class of 2020 taking up a larger portion of the freshman class.)

In a normal admissions cycle, test scores play a large role in merit awards. This is not just for National Merit scholarships but across the board, especially at public universities. Many schools have already revamped their scholarship matrices to award merit aid exclusively on the basis of GPA. But that doesn’t mean students who took the SAT or ACT already wasted their time: students with test scores should submit them, especially if they’re in the top 25th percentile for a school you’re interested in (check College Navigator for that info). Even schools that won’t consider them for admission may look at them for scholarships.

Two key considerations for merit scholarships that are based exclusively on grades:

  • Which GPA does the school use, weighted or unweighted? It’s quite common for schools to use unweighted GPA which can be a setback for students who have pursued more challenging courseloads.
  • How much of your academic career is considered in awarding scholarships? It’s not uncommon for scholarship eligibility to be based on six semesters– through end of junior year.

If you want to search specifically for schools that offer merit awards, use CollegeData‘s CollegeMatch search tool, where, under Financial Friendliness, you can search for schools that offer merit aid with or without financial need.