Paying for college is a major concern for many students and families. Luckily, there are thousands of private scholarships available each year awarded based on merit rather than financial need. In this post, we’ll outline 15 of the most prestigious national merit-based scholarships you should consider applying for.
While competition is intense, demonstrating top grades, test scores, leadership experience and community impact can help exceptional candidates earn full or partial funding for their entire undergraduate education. Let’s explore some of the most academically rigorous yet potentially life-changing awards out there.
Top 15 Merit-Based Scholarships to Apply For
The Rhodes Scholarship is arguably the most prestigious international scholarship in the world, providing all expenses for two to three years of study at the University of Oxford in England. Only 32 Americans are selected each year. Candidates must demonstrate outstanding leadership, intellectual and athletic ability, integrity of character and a commitment to service. An academic GPA of 3.7 or higher and top standardized test scores are baseline requirements. Strong recommendations and compelling essays discussing your future aspirations are also crucial.
Like the Rhodes, the Marshall Scholarship funds Americans to study at any UK university for up to two years. Applicants must have a minimum GPA of 3.7 and be under 26 years old at the time of application. In addition to the academic qualifications required for the Rhodes, Marshall candidates should demonstrate entrepreneurship, an innovative spirit and a commitment to United States-United Kingdom relations. Only around 40 scholarships are awarded annually.
Fulbright U.S. Student Program
One of the most prestigious international awards, Fulbright provides funding for individually designed study/research or English teaching assistant programs abroad lasting 6-12 months. All countries and fields of study are open. Candidates should have a 3.7 GPA or higher, experience living/studying abroad and demonstrate leadership in their local community. Applicants undergo a multi-stage selection process including campus and regional committees.
Gates Cambridge Scholarship
This scholarship places outstanding international students from outside the UK in full-time postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge. American candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree and GPA of 3.7 or higher and display exceptional leadership and impact in their field and community. Scholarship priority is given to those pursuing careers related to improving lives in developing countries. 43 Gates Cambridge scholars are chosen yearly from a global applicant pool.
Barry Goldwater Scholarship
If your goal involves a career in mathematics, natural sciences or engineering, consider applying for the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship. This merit-based award provides up to $7,500 per year for tuition, fees, books and room/board to sophomores and juniors. Top GPA and proven research ability as shown through publications, presentations and letters of recommendation are musts. Only 260 awards are made annually from a national pool of over 1,000 applicants.
Udall Undergraduate Scholarship
The Udall Scholarship supports American students committed to careers related to the environment, Native American health care or tribal public policy. All majors are eligible as long as your studies or activities involve one of those areas. Candidates must demonstrate leadership, public service and community engagement along with top grades and test scores. 50 scholarships providing up to $7,000 per year are awarded nationwide.
This prestigious scholarship helps Americans enhance their careers through study at the University of Cambridge focusing on science, mathematics and engineering with an emphasis on outcomes that can enhance public welfare. Candidates must have at least a 3.7 GPA and demonstrate exceptional research ability along with leadership potential and a commitment to public service. Intensive analysis skills and a compelling personal statement are keys to success when only 12 awards are given out annually.
Gates Millennium Scholars
For outstanding minority students from low-income backgrounds pursuing any undergraduate program, the Gates Millennium Scholars Program could fully fund your costs through graduation. To qualify, you’ll need high grades, leadership in extracurriculars and a proven dedication to community service. 1,000 new scholars are selected annually from a highly competitive applicant pool. Maintaining at least a 3.3 college GPA is necessary to continue receiving funding.
Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation
While the undergraduate Udall focuses on environmental fields, this related scholarship supports graduate study or research opportunities in environment, health care or tribal public policy. Extremely strong academics plus a career vision centered around the program’s mission areas are baseline requirements. Fewer than 50 highly competitive awards between $5,000-$25,000 are made each year.
Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship
This program aims to help high-achieving high school seniors from lower-income backgrounds who demonstrate financial need complete their undergraduate education debt-free. Recipients receive up to $40,000 annually to attend the college of their choice. Candidates must have a minimum 3.5 GPA and 1300 SAT or 29 ACT plus financial circumstances limiting four-year college access without aid. Just 60 recipients are selected each year.
Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship
For students from backgrounds underrepresented in graduate education pursuing PhD programs, MMUF offers funding and mentoring for bachelors and masters study. Fellows receive up to $9,000 per fellowship year plus summer research stipends. A minimum 3.0 GPA and commitment to increasing diversity in academia through teaching or research are key. Around 100 students are funded annually through this potentially life-changing program.
A relatively new entrant, the Schwarzman Scholarship places 100 Americans per year at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China for a fully funded one-year master’s degree program focused on global affairs. Strong academics must be complemented by demonstrated leadership potential and interest in Sino-US relations. Candidates must apply through a multistage selection process involving campus interviews, consortium reviews and a final worldwide competition.
NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program
For students pursuing a research-based master’s or doctoral degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, the NSF GRFP provides three years of funding including a $34,000 annual stipend. Candidates need a minimum GPA of 3.0, relevant research experience and strong letters of support emphasizing your potential to become research leaders. Success requires competitively highlighting a well-defined PhD project proposal.
U.S. Department of Defense National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Fellowship
DoD awards this highly prestigious fellowship to recruit top science and engineering students into defense-related research to address national security and service needs. Fellows receive full tuition plus a $34,000 annual living stipend for three years of graduate study leading to a Master’s or doctoral degree in areas of priority to DoD missions. Exceptional research experience and aptitude for defense-related STEM studies are musts.
This program places outstanding American undergraduate students at any Irish university for a fully-funded one-year postgraduate degree program while developing cultural connections between the two countries. While GPA and test scores must be top-tier, Mitchell Fellows also embody exceptional leadership, civic engagement and communication skills. Just 12 total scholarships are awarded each year.
Transitioning between Scholarships
It’s important to note that many scholarships listed above like Goldwater, Udall, and NSF GRFP prioritize funding the transition between undergraduate and graduate programs. While the named awards may only directly sponsor the bachelor’s component, success often qualifies recipients for multi-year continuation at the graduate level through related funding sources. Fellows also gain valuable research experience and mentorship giving them an edge pursuing independent sources of support later on.
Strategizing Your Applications
Competing for these nationally esteemed scholarships requires advanced planning and optimization of your candidacy profile. Here are some tips for bolstering your competitiveness:
- Maintain a consistently high GPA throughout rigorous coursework to build a strong academic resume.
- Maximize standardized test scores through dedicated practice early on by exposing weaknesses.
- Seek relevant and meaningful experiences like research, international study and leadership roles from your first year.
- Begin crafting a compelling multi-year career vision statement centered on the program missions early.
- Proactively build strong mentor relationships with recommenders who can personally attest your fit and potential at the scholarship level.
- Visit campuses as early as sophomore year for individual advising and project networking support from collegiate liaisons and alumni.
- Apply drafted essays through multiple edits and encouraging outside reviewers early enough for refinement.
- Target safety and state-level awards initially to practice the application process successfully before tackling national programs.
Candidates launching a strategic multi-year preparation and refinement plan stand the best odds of succeeding in earning life-changing support from these highly prestigious sources of merit aid and developmental experiences. Commit to continuous self-improvement across all required dimensions.