The Secret to Getting Great College Scholarships: Part Two

by | Jul 28, 2021 | Getting Into College with $$

Okay, okay, Dr. Barb, you’re saying, we get it! Merit money for the colleges is much easier to get than trying for impossibly difficult national scholarships so we should focus on them.

Yes, absolutely.

Now the question is, how do you get Merit Scholarships? And where do you have the best chance get them?

I.  Four Secrets of How to Get Merit Scholarships

Secret #1:  Every Student Needs to be Positioned as a Star

One of the keys to my success as a college coach has been that I realized early on that my real job with families who needed money to pay for college was to help position their children as stars.  I truly believe that every single student I have worked with has something marvelous to give to a college (and the world).  My job is to see that greatness and help bring it forth like Michelangelo, who saw the magnificence in a block of marble before he even began to carve his marvelous statues.

Today it is even more imperative to bring forth college stars because as I have said in my previous blogs, the bright line between financial aid (Need $), merit scholarships (Non Need $) and college admission is dimming.  Every single student needs to be positioned well to get into college and to get enough money to go.

Secret #2: Good Grades in Rigorous Classes and High SATs/ACTs=Scholarships

It is imperative that you understand that Merit Scholarships at most colleges are overwhelmingly for academic merit.  There are a few colleges that give $$ for outstanding leadership, talent, and community service, but they are rare.  Focus on getting academic scholarships and you will have the best chance to get them.

Secret #3: To Get Academic Scholarships You Must do Three Vital Things:

1.) GPA:

Get the highest GPA you are able to get in the most rigorous classes you are capable of taking (AP, IB, community college); this is the story told by your transcript and recommendations;


Get the highest testing scores you are capable of getting, meaning SATs, ACTS, and SAT 2s (although many colleges don’t require SAT 2 s (subject tests), you can use them to help position yourself) and AP scores. This is the story told by your official testing scores;

3.) Academic Initiative:

 Learn how to tell a compelling story about your Academic Initiative.

The great presidential historian, Doris Kerns Goodwin said recently that the candidate who wins the Obama-Romney Presidential race will be the one “who tells the most compelling story from beginning, middle to end.”

This is absolutely applicable to merit scholarships.  The student who tells the most compelling academic story from beginning, middle to end wins college and scholarships!

It may be a back story about the challenges and adversity you went through to get those great grades and testing scores.  For example, how you went from a C student to an A student in your high school career, or how you conquered math by doing extraordinary hard work, redoing every problem set before a test.

Or it may be how you took an academic passion and ran with it.  For instance, how you loved science so much you competed for and got an internship at Lawrence Berkeley lab and how it impacted you. Or you developed such an interest in reading classics that you created a Classic Book Club at your high school (very unusual today) and wrote a blog for teenagers about great classic reads.

The key here is that everyone has a chance to get merit money if he can position his story as one that overcomes academic challenges and/or one where she had the initiative to go to the next level with her passion.

Let me tell you two stories that illustrate this.

I once helped a single mother of 4 who had a 2.5 GPA, get into St. Mary College of Moraga with a $10,000 scholarship. We were able to tell her amazing story and have academic recommendations to back it up.

Sarya was going to community college while working full time and caring for her 4 children as a single mom.  She was doing all this because she wanted to have a chance to better her life and certainly her children’s.  But at the college she hit a snag.  She simply could not complete the college math requirement to transfer.  The first time she took Algebra 2, she failed.  The next time she took it, she got a D.  The third time, she not only passed it, but stunned her math teacher by her diligence and comprehension.  She said in her essay, “It was like I was boxing with algebra and the first time I got in the ring, bam! I was knocked down.  So I started my training again and when I thought I was ready, I got into the ring, and bam!  I was knocked down again.  But I got up, even though I was bloody and tired, I did it again, but this time I got up an hour early every day and I went to bed an hour later because I was studying so hard and this time I won.  Now I know I can learn anything.”

Tip: Remember, the compelling story is one thing but you must back it up with evidence:  in Sarya’s case it was through her transcripts and a recommendation letter from the very math teacher who had given her the poor grades and then witnessed her triumph.

The second story is about creating an academic theme.  I am going to get into how to do this in much greater detail in a later blog because there really is an art to it but I wanted underline here how much focusing on your academic strengths helps.

A few years ago a young man name Des come to me who was passionate about drama and English but not very good in math or science.  His mother wanted him to bring up his math SAT score because it was only 550, whereas his verbal was 640 and his writing score was 620.  I explained to Des that he would get much more mileage out of focusing on bringing his verbal and writing up to 700 or so with good tutoring. Then I asked him if he was involved in theater at his high school and he said no, that it was very competitive and he never got any decent parts.  I suggested that he start his own group with some other friends who had been left out.  And that is exactly what he did.  They actually produced two well received plays in a local theater in Alameda.  In addition, he pitched a drama workshop for elementary kids to his favorite 5th grade teacher.  She loved the idea; it was very successful and she wrote him a lovely community (as opposed to academic) recommendation.

We then worked on completing his academic theme of being creative and academically good at drama and literature by his taking the SAT Subject Test in Literature, which, after tutoring, he did well in.  I helped him find schools that were in his GPA level (3.5) which were good in Theater and English. Des ended up going to Whittier College in California with a $15,000 a year merit scholarship because he showed academic initiative.  In sum, Des got excellent grades in English and Theater.  He proved he was competitive with his test scores. He showed real initiative in starting his own theater group and doing volunteer drama workshops at his old elementary school.  And, he backed everything up with recommendations, test scores, and his GPA.

What Des was able to do was put a spotlight on what he was good at and allow those things he was adequate at best, fade into the background. Theater at its best!

II.  Three Secrets about Where You Have the Best Chance to Get Merit $$

Secret #1  Pick Colleges that Have Merit $$$

So where do you get Merit ScholarshipsNOT in Ivy League or Ivy League level schools that are what I call gorillas because they roar and students come. Excellent students are already vying to get into them so they don’t need to recruit them with scholarships (in Blog #7 I will give you a list of these prestigious and popular schools that give no merit money).

And certainly NOT in public universities who have already given students a scholarship by being cheaper than other comparable colleges.

Your best bet for finding merit scholarships is in small very good private schools that are seeking to build their reputation by bringing in students who are good in certain subjects and/or who have academic excellence.

Private schools have more because they have greater endowments, they are not based on the ups and downs of state taxes and they are actively searching for the best students.

It is also true that great public universities like the University of Michigan and the University of California do have some merit money.

In comparison to private colleges, however, there is very little scholarship money in public universities.  CAL, for instance, accepts almost 9000 freshman every year and offers about 10 merit scholarships, whereas great colleges like Emory University, Washington U. at St. Louis and USC offer many more.

TIP:  if your child is good enough to get a Trustee or Presidential scholarship at CAL (which at most is $10,000) out of 9000 kids, make sure it is for 4 years and can be extended because it takes so long to graduate because of crowded classes.  But also, if you’re that good, you probably can get a full ride (tuition, fees and room and board) at a private school.

Remember, the 8 ivy league schools and 42 other ivy league level schools are not going to give you non need or merit scholarships.  In addition, there are many prestigious colleges who give very little merit money.

Secret # 2 : Pick Colleges Where You are an Academic Star

Colleges that will give you substantial money are those where you are positioned as an academic star.  So if you are a solid B+ (3.5) student, look for colleges to give you money where your B is valued.  You’re not a going to a cent from colleges that are ‘dream’ (4.0) schools or ‘possibles’ (3.6+), but your ‘fall back’ schools–those that have 3.2 or 3.3–will give you a good chance to get money.

To me, Loren Pope’s excellent book, “Colleges that Change Lives” is like a consumer report on some of the best and fairly unknown colleges who have great merit money.

Because these are colleges for B and B+ student, a well positioned A student can get good money there, as I have with my students time and time again.

So it’s not only positioning yourself academically, it’s positioning yourself in colleges that appreciate your value. This is exactly what I did for Sarya and Des.  I found schools where their challenges and initiative made them stars.

Secret # 3 Pick Colleges (with Merit $$) Outside your State!

Here’s a staggering statistics: 80% of students stay in their home state to go to college.

Tip:  go outside your home state to college and you decrease the competition and increase your chances to get in and get money. Because one of the key things about colleges are that no matter how small they are they all want geographic diversity as well as a good racial mix.  And they will often pay for it.

But if you stay in your home state (or those are the only colleges on your list) you are competing with the 80% of students who want to stay near home.  In California, we have over 650,000 students a year competing to get into the same UCs and private colleges in California.  That’s why merit money in your home state often isn’t as good as outside your state.

A few years ago, when we still had some amazing bookstores in Berkeley, I met a mom and dad who were feverishly going through college choice books trying to find a school as good as the University of California where her boy could have a superb science education but not end up a number with 48,000 other students.  I immediately suggested Emory University, a marvelous 4 year college in Atlanta that is not only well funded (it is nicknamed the University of Coca Cola because of its endowment)but has Nobel Prize winners teaching there also.  They took my advice and applied at both schools, among others, and their son ended up at Emory and in his first year there was able to do a research project with a Nobel Prize winner.  This would never happen at a crowded six year university like UC Berkeley.

TIP: This is the bottom line secret of getting merit money–all things being equal, your best chance for getting money is from schools that give it and that are slightly below your GPA and SATs so that you’re considered a star.


Stay tuned for blog # 7 “The 48 Colleges Who Offer NO Merit $$” which is very important to know if you want good money for college.  Check out my website at  Leave a comment for me on this blog. Or, ask me a question by email.  I can’t promise I will answer every one but I will carefully read them because you are teaching me where you need my support and expertise. Thanks for listening!