Where to Find Merit-Based College Scholarships

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Students with stellar grades often get scholarships. So do promising student athletes. But what about the rest of the high school crowd? Can they earn scholarship money for college, too? Yes, it turns out. Many merit-based scholarships are available to anyone with the proper credentials and a willingness to apply.

Two Types of Merit-Based Scholarships

Merit-based scholarships differ from needs-based scholarships in that anyone can apply for one, regardless of financial status. Financial hardship can enter the equation, but it's not the first filter. Instead, qualifications and performance are more likely to determine success.

Many merit-based scholarships involve contests in which multiple applicants compete for awards. Scholarships can be organized according to ethnicity, interest, career goal, volunteerism history and just about anything else you can imagine.

Ready to start your search? Let's begin by defining the two types of merit-based scholarships:

  • Public: Anyone can apply, which means the competition is fierce. Good examples of public merit scholarships include the Financial Service Centers of America Scholarship, which awards $2,000 or more to students who are "committed to community service, leadership, and academic excellence." Overcoming a serious obstacle is also a plus. Students must submit a 1,000-word essay for consideration.
  • Private: Only those who meet certain requirements can apply, which means there's less competition. Good examples of private merit scholarships include the various scholarships given out by the Air Traffic Control Association. Last year, the group awarded 11 scholarships totaling $71,000 for students pursuing degrees in aviation-related fields. Students must submit a 500-word essay and letters of recommendation.

Where You'll Find Them

Both of the above examples I found on the Internet. And yet that's not the most efficient way to look for college cash. Rather, I'd say that it's third on this list of three sources:

  1. Your high school counselor. They're around to give advice, right? Use that. Ask for help sharpening your search for scholarships. Ask whom they know at the colleges where your son or daughter plans to apply. They may be able to help you make a valuable connection. Or, at the very least, point you to credible resources that tend to go unnoticed.
  2. Your employer. Large companies that expect to be recruiting generations of talent tend to offer scholarships in hopes of replenishing the ranks once top candidates have finished school. Boeing is a good example. Not only does the aerospace giant offer scholarships through partner universities, it also provides additional funds to National Merit Scholars who are children of Boeing employees.
  3. Web-based searches. If you think I mean via Google search, you're wrong. Dozens of websites have popped up over the years to help students and their parents find scholarships worth targeting. Notable tools include Fastweb, Unigo, the College Board's Scholarship Search and Financial Aid Finder.

Don't Stop Saving

As with anything, the more time and effort you put into applying for merit scholarships, the more likely it is that you'll end up with a heap of cash to help pay for school. Or, as in the case of Gwen Thomas, more than you need.

Author of the book "The Parent's Smart Guide to Sending Your Kid to College Without Going Broke," Thomas said in an interview that she and her son tackled 100 merit scholarships and won 25, netting a half-million in proceeds and an educational experience that included travel to some 30 countries.

Odds are that you and your offspring won't hit the jackpot as Thomas did, so be sure to keep socking away funds for college whenever you can, via a Coverdell IRA or tax-advantaged 529 account. But you also needn't admit defeat before you've tried. Scholarship money is out there. Now you know where to find it.

Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers will be chasing scholarship money for the next several years. He owned shares of Google (A and C class) at the time of publication and can be found on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Google (A and C class). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

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