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Understanding the National Merit Scholarship Program

January 27, 2017
Written by Taylor


The National Merit Scholarship Program is a national academic competition for high school students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. It is administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). Students qualify for the program by achieving a high score on the PSAT—more formally called the PSAT/NMSQT (“National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test”)—in their junior year, and then they may be designated as Commended Students, Semifinalists, or (after an additional application) Finalists for a $2,500 scholarship. Gaining recognition as a Semifinalist or Finalist is a prestigious achievement to include on college applications, and many colleges and even some corporations offer additional scholarship funds to recognized students. Therefore, there are benefits to gaining National Merit recognition beyond the initial scholarship opportunity.


Qualifying for National Merit recognition requires scoring in approximately the top 1% of all junior-year PSAT test-takers. A student’s qualifying score, called the “selection index,” can be calculated by doubling the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section score, then adding the Math section score, and dividing by ten.

Here is an example for a student who scored a 690 EBRW and 710 Math:
(690 x 2) + 710 = 2090
2090 / 10 = a selection score of 209

Selection score cutoffs are determined on a state-by-state basis, but students should expect to need selection scores close to 220 to qualify as Semifinalists. Here is a helpful chart showing the breakdown for the class of 2017:

National Merit

This chart offers a state-by-state guide to 2017's selection index cutoffs. For our Massachusetts residents, it's worth noting that Massachusetts is frequently one of the most competitive states when it comes to earning National Merit Semifinalist status. This year, for instance, its selection index cutoff for Semifinalist status was 222, tied for the highest cutoff in the nation with Washington D.C. and New Jersey.


Semifinalist to Finalist
Students will be notified of their qualification as a Commended Student or Semifinalist in September of their senior year (i.e. the fall following the junior year PSAT). Commended Students will not be eligible to move on in the competition. To qualify as Finalists, Semifinalists must meet several requirements, including the following:

  1. 1. Be endorsed for Finalist standing and recommended for a National Merit Scholarship by your high school principal or other designated school official.

  2. Maintain a record of “consistently very high academic performance”; high schools will report a student’s courses (9th-12th grade) and grades to the NMSC.

  3. Complete the NMSC Online Scholarship Application, which forwards your application to your designated high school official. Your high school must finalize and submit the application to the NMSC by the mid-October deadline (for the class of 2017, it was October 12, 2016).

  4. Take the SAT—preferably in October, but no later than December—and “earn scores that confirm your…PSAT/NMSQT performance.” There is no reported cutoff, but students who have performed very strongly on the PSAT should endeavor to perform very strongly on the SAT. Submit SAT scores to the NMSC using code 0085.


College Choice
When completing the Online Scholarship Application, students will be asked to name their first-choice college. This is not binding, as National Merit scholarships and corporate-sponsored scholarships may be transferred from one college to another. You may also initially select “undecided” and take until May 1 to report your decision. However, naming a college as your first choice before March 1 automatically places you among the first group of students referred to that college for scholarship consideration, and college-sponsored National Merit scholarships do not transfer to different schools. Thus, it is important to name your first-choice school.


Finalist Selection
Students will be notified of their selection as Finalists in early February, and the NMSC will mail offers of corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarships and $2500 National Merit Scholarships in March. Offers of college-sponsored Merit Scholarships will be sent after May 1.

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