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Last updated March 21, 2024

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What Is a Partial Scholarship?

Key Takeaway

Partial scholarships, also known as merit-based scholarships, cover part of your college expenses and don't need to be repaid. They are awarded based on academic or other accomplishments. To increase your chances of getting a partial scholarship, apply to schools where you outperform the average student. Highly-selective schools usually don't offer merit aid.

When you're figuring out how to pay for college, “partial scholarships,” also known as “merit-based scholarships,” are one of your best options. They’re called “partial” scholarships because they cover part of your tuition and expenses. They don’t cover all of your college costs like a full-ride scholarship does, but you’re much more likely to get a partial scholarship than a full-ride. And unlike loans, you don’t have to pay partial scholarships back.

This post will give you the rundown on merit aid and share some practical tips to help you get money for college.

What is merit-based aid?

Colleges offer you merit-based aid when they're eager to enroll you. Unlike need-based aid, which depends on your financial situation, merit-based scholarships reward you for your academic, artistic, athletic, or other accomplishments. They’re called “merit-based” because they’re awarded based on some kind of merit.

These scholarships won't cover all your college costs. But they can have a huge range—from a couple hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. What you get depends mainly on each college and its scholarship policies. When you’re doing college research, you should be paying attention to what kinds of aid are available to you at each school, especially if you need money for college but don’t qualify for a ton of need-based aid.

If you are awarded merit-based scholarships, you often have conditions to abide by. Usually, you'll need to maintain a certain GPA if you want to keep your scholarship. Other partial scholarships might require you to participate in a particular cohort or academic program. So as you do your research, also make sure you’re aware of what you’ll need to do if you’re awarded a scholarship.

How do I get partial scholarships?

The best way to increase your chances of getting a partial scholarship is to apply to several schools where you're likely to outperform the average student. We sometimes call these “safety” or “likely” schools.

You know you’ve found a safety or likely school when your GPA and SAT or ACT scores are much higher than the middle 50% range. (Of course, if you have perfect or near-perfect stats, you don’t get to count Harvard as a “safety” school! Safety schools should also have acceptance rates above ~60% to be truly “safe.”)

When you're an above-average applicant at a particular school, they may offer partial scholarships to tempt you to pick them over other, more competitive schools. You can leverage this extra money to cut down your college costs while still getting a great education.

Highly-selective schools (think Ivy League and T20) usually don't offer merit aid. They prefer a need-based model. While it might be tempting to only look at these schools if you’re a strong candidate, you may need to expand your search for financial reasons. If you know that you won’t qualify for much financial aid but won’t be able to pay for college out of pocket, then pursuing merit scholarships should be a priority.

Every bit of scholarship money matters. Partial scholarships can add up and significantly reduce the amount of money you’ll have to take out in student loans to pay for college.

(And don’t forget: other parts of your application, like your extracurriculars and college essays, can also help you stand out to an admissions committee and come across as a stronger candidate for a merit award or partial scholarship.)


Merit-based scholarships, given by colleges to draw in talented students, are an important part of paying for college. They can reduce the amount you have to pay from a couple hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. To maximize your chances, understand each college's aid policies, keep your grades up, and present strong application materials. Try applying to schools where you're an above-average applicant, often known as 'safety' or 'likely' schools. Keep in mind that highly competitive schools, like those in the Ivy League, usually do not offer merit aid.



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