University Reveals the Secrets of Winning Merit Scholarships

Last Updated Aug 3, 2011 9:58 AM EDT

How does a university decide which teenagers will get its merit scholarships? We know that grades and test scores count, but other factors also matter when scholarship decisions are made behind closed doors.

That's why I was excited when the University of Rochester decided to share its fascinating accounting of just what mattered when the school was deciding which applicants would get its latest round of merit awards.

After the university's freshmen class had been selected, Jonathan Burdick, Rochester's dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, sat down this summer and analyzed the merit scholarship numbers to determine what admission factors had influenced the scholarship decisions.

While test scores and grades certainly mattered at the University of Rochester, other factors, such as expressing a genuine interest in the upstate New York school, was worth even more money for many students.

Anatomy of a University's Merit Awards

What you'll see below is the average dollar figure for individual admission factors that counted in the awarding of merit scholarships at Rochester during the latest admission cycle:

$3,000:

Having serious conversations with admissions and financial aid counselors was typically worth $3,000 in merit money. This university rewards students who express interest in them and it keeps track of every contact teenagers make. "It makes a big difference if we are familiar with you and you are familiar with us," Burdick notes.

$2,000:

Living outside New York state was worth $2,000 because Rochester values geographic diversity. More than 62% of Rochester students met that criteria. The admission director didn't check, but he suspects that the farther the students lived from Rochester, the more money they got. Burdick says he is thrilled that there are three teenagers from New Mexico in the freshmen class!

$62:

Every "A" on an applicant's report card produced merit aid worth $62.

$400:

Students got about $400 for every rigorous high school course that they took. Classes in this category include Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and honors.

$1,800:

That's how much the typical student received if his/her letters of recommendation were considered "excellent."

$115:

Every 10 point increase in the SAT generated this much money above the SAT average of Rochester's freshmen. The average SAT score was 2040 out of a maximum 2400.

$425:

This is what each extra point on the ACT test was worth above the average of the university's freshmen. Most students at Rochester submit the SAT, but the school's ACT's middle range was 29 to 32 out of a maximum 36.

$400:

Completing the admission application, including mid-year grade requests, on time was worth $400.

$1.89:

That's about what was deducted every time another student was admitted with the same major. That's bad news for the popular majors including political science, psychology, economics and biology, but great news for under appreciated majors such as philosophy, which Burdick calls "golden."

$1,700:

That's how much the average applicant received in merit money if his/her parents completed the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The school imposes a progressive tax on their merit awards. On average each four dollars less in family income increased merit awards one cent.

$2,500:

That's how much the average student received if the parents completed the FAFSA AND CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, which is a financial aid application that some private schools use.

82 cents:

The older the student, the more the life experiences. Each extra day of a student's life equals 82 cents.

When You Add Up All the Scholarship Money

So when you add all these factors up, what kind of awards can students expect at the University of Rochester?

Disregarding the tiny number of full-rides that the university awards, the top merit scholarships are worth $20,000 a year. Most merit scholarships, which shouldn't be confused with need-based financial aid, ranged from $10,000 to $12,000 a year. The sticker price of the University of Rochester is $53,922.

Bottom Line:

While these numbers are specific to Rochester's incoming freshman class, it can certainly serve as a rule of thumb for families pursuing merit scholarships at many other selective colleges and universities.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also writes her own college blog at The College Solution.

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