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5 Steps to Use Your College Entrance Essays to Reveal Your Value for Merit Financial Aid

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Nov 9, 2012 1:03:00 PM

Student debt is slamming the upper middle class. Families with incomes from $94,535 to $205,335 are the fastest growing sector of educational debt. Fear not: merit financial aid decisions are often made in the admissions office, and you can determine whether you sink or swim based on your college entrance essays.

We’ve seen this college debt crisis coming, with savvy parents seeking out colleges where their children will receive merit financial aid scholarships and graduate debt free–or close to it. Many colleges (like Kenyon College) are adding funding for full tuition scholarships to attract top students, and there is a growing industry of consultants who advise middle class families how to qualify for more scholarships, including the ones that are need-based.

Let’s call it the 20-80 strategy: Take your hopes down 20% from your top schools, leverage your grades and SAT or ACT scores, and research where you can get 80% or more of your tuition and expenses paid by the school.

Across the economic spectrum, and at all types of colleges and universities, students who use college entrance essays to make a case for why colleges should invest in them tend to receive more admissions offers than students who write bland and generic personal statements. Showing who they are as people today, and what difference they will make after they graduate, can also net more merit financial aid scholarships for students.

Here are 5 steps to shape college entrance essays that show how you add value in a college community:

  1. Make your list with fit and money in mind: The core of your college list should be places where you have a strong chance of both admission and merit financial aid. Wondering where you might qualify for merit financial aid? Check out and
  2. Treat each application as a separate conversation: Get to know each place you are applying; make sure your academic background and extracurricular passions are a strong fit. Go ahead and admit yourself, and write your college application essays–especially “Why I Want to Attend Your College”–from that place!
  3. Apply for all the aid you can: Sometimes this is as easy as checking a box that says “YES please consider me for merit aid.” Other times you need to fill out a supplemental essay.
  4. Optional essays are not optional: Use every chance you get to show a college another facet of what you will add to their community.
  5. What should I put in an essay for merit financial aid? Tell a story of a time you made a difference. If a college invests its educational resources in you, what will you give back to the community and the world at large?

With lowered job expectations, and a stagnant economy, there are clearly a lot of people struggling to make the college financial equation work. We are at a crossroads for higher education in this country. Over the next 20 years, technology will transform higher education, including pushing the cost of education down for everyone. For now, if you want to pay for college with scholarships, rather than debt, remember to tell compelling and authentic stories in your college application essays, the one part of the process you completely control.

Want more tips? Check out our guides, college admission essay tips and webinars that provide college essay help and enable you to successfully bridge the gap from high school to college, and life.

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Topics:college admission