FAFSA Required for Merit Aid Hopeful?

Question: Is it necessary to fill out the FASFA (financial aid form) in order to qualify for merit scholarships directly from the university? We do not qualify for need-based aid. The scholarship money is important to our family because our son plans to continue his education beyond the first four years. If he receives merit money for his undergraduate education, then he will have our money for a Masters, law school, etc.

Of all the confusing, frustrating, annoying inconsistencies you'll encounter as you go through the college admission process with your son, the search for merit aid may be the worst. The good news is that, in most cases, there is no separate application for merit money, there is no FAFSA required, and many merit awards are not based on demonstrated need. So, if your son chooses his colleges wisely and applies to institutions that offer good merit assistance and where his "numbers" (SAT/ACT, GPA, class rank--if he has one) put him at the top of the heap, he should be rewarded with merit scholarships to entice him to enroll.

BUT ... the bad news is that some colleges (admittedly not many) do require the FAFSA for all scholarships, whether need-based or not, so you have to dig around on college Web sites and read all the fine print to make sure that your son's target schools aren't on that list.

Sometimes, too, a separate application is required for merit scholarships, so this is something you will need to hunt for as well. Typically this is true of the biggies (e.g., full-tuition scholarships or other substantial awards) but, again, don't expect consistency; read all instructions. Occasionally, a student must first be nominated by a school official. If this is the case at any of your son's target colleges, it's really up to him to alert his guidance counselor or principal to the requirements. He may sometimes find that the school administration has already named other student(s) for this honor, but it can't hurt to ask, and often school officials will make no nomination unless a student puts this on their radar screens. Nomination deadlines and merit-aid application deadlines may fall well before the usual deadlines, so pay heed.

If you weren't planning on doing the FAFSA, you might want to reconsider, unless you are certain it is not required for merit aid at any of your son's colleges. (If the Web sites are too inscrutable, just pick up the phone and call financial aid offices.)

Even though the majority of colleges don't require the FAFSA for merit aid, other reasons for tackling it include:

-Access to some loans available through the college only to those who have completed the FAFSA, even if ineligible for need-based aid

-Eligibility for need-based aid if the family's situation changes dramatically. (Some colleges will not allow students who initially applied as no-need to apply for aid in the next year or years, if there is a major change in the household income or financial circumstances.)

Finally, although the best merit scholarships usually come from the colleges themselves, if your son has not already done so, he should also look for outside scholarships by completing the simple questionnaire at His responses on the FastWeb questionnaire will generate a list of scholarships that are appropriate for him. Some are quite large (and competitive), others less so. Many will require extra essays or other submissions; others are far easier to go after.

Good luck to you as you wade through the merit money maze!