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Understanding the National Merit Scholarship Program

A stack of books with a graduation cap on top and the text 'National Merit Scholarship' in the negative space to the left.

“National” “Merit” and “Scholarship” all sound very good when considered in the midst of college admission. Even better when you realize that just by taking the PSAT in the fall of your junior year, you’ve already entered yourself for this award!

But surely it can’t be as easy as that. After all, according to the College Board, last year more than 4.5 million high school juniors took the PSAT, but the National Merit Scholarship selected only 7,500 finalists. That’s less than a fifth of a percent.

What exactly is the National Merit Scholarship, and how does a high school student become a semifinalist or finalist? What does the selection process mean for your chances of admission at top colleges? And are there benefits to gaining National Merit recognition outside the initial scholarship opportunity?

Read on to find out how to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, how to understand the process, and how to maximize your chances of becoming a winner.

National Merit Scholarship Eligibility

First things first. The National Merit Scholarship Program is a national academic competition for high school students to provide financial aid to attend college. It is administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

Students qualify for the National Merit program by achieving a high score on the PSAT. In fact, the test is more formally called the PSAT/NMSQT, which stands for Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test! Make sure that you take the official PSAT/NMSQT, rather than an alternative like the PSAT 10, which won’t count for the National Merit Scholarship.

Upon receiving their PSAT scores, high scorers may be designated by the NMSC as Commended Students, Semifinalists, or (after an additional application) Finalists. From the Finalists, around 7,500 students are selected to become scholarship winners.

There are a three major factors in eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship:

Students’ eligibility for the program will be determined by the NMSC based on a few factual questions at the beginning of the PSAT/NMSQT.

How to Become A National Merit Scholar

While the PSAT/NMSQT is the starting point for receiving a National Merit Scholarship commendation or becoming a semifinalist or finalist, it’s not the end of the process. There are a few stages to the process that are important to keep in mind:

Get a Great PSAT Score!

Of course, the most important thing is to ace the PSAT/NMSQT as a junior. In order to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, most students need a test score within the top 1% of their state. That means the score cutoff will change depending on where you reside, and how well others in your state did on the PSAT. You’ll find out in September of your senior year if you scored well enough to become a semifinalist.

At this stage you might be named either a Commended Student or a Semifinalist. Both are impressive markers that are worth putting in your college application. Less than 5% of test takers receive any commendation from the National Merit program.

Write a Strong Application

If you are named a National Merit Semifinalist—congratulations! Now it’s time to apply to become a Finalist. Only a small percentage of semifinalists move onto finalist standing and receive the award, so this scholarship application is a crucial part of the process. You can find more information about this below, under “National Merit Semifinalists.”

Score Well on the SAT

Your test-taking isn’t over; in addition to doing well on the PSAT, National Merit Finalists are also high scorers on the SAT. As part of your scholarship application, you’ll also have to submit official SAT scores from the College Board.

The NMSC and College Board don’t suggest a cutoff score for the SAT, only that it would be “high enough to confirm your PSAT/NMSQT performance.” Thus, it’s very important that if you do score well on the PSAT, you should keep studying for the SAT, so that if you advance to Semifinalist standing, you’ll be in a good position to apply to become a Finalist.

Scores Needed for National Merit Scholarships

Once you’ve taken the PSAT, the NMSC calculates your overall score. They calculate selection index scores to evaluate PSAT scores each year. The cutoff scores for last year’s PSAT/NMSQT are listed below. Note that these selection index scores vary by state, so find yours to see how competitive the National Merit Scholarship Competition will be in your area:

STATE SELECTION INDEX SCORE
Alabama 216
Alaska 213
Arizona 219
Arkansas 214
California 222
Colorado 220
Connecticut 221
Delaware 220
DC 223
Florida 219
Georgia 220
Hawaii 219
Idaho 215
Illinois 221
Indiana 218
Iowa 215
Kansas 218
Kentucky 218
Louisiana 215
Maine 215
Maryland 222
Massachusetts 223
Michigan 219
Minnesota 219
Mississippi 214
Missouri 217
Montana 214
Nebraska 216
Nevada 218
New Hampshire 218
New Jersey 223
New Mexico 213
New York 221
North Carolina 219
North Dakota 212
Ohio 218
Oklahoma 214
Oregon 220
Pennsylvania 220
Rhode Island 218
South Carolina 215
South Dakota 214
Tennessee 219
Texas 221
Utah 215
Vermont 216
Virginia 222
Washington 222
West Virginia 212
Wisconsin 216
Wyoming 212
Average Score 218

As you can see, the average cutoff score is 218, but if you live in Wyoming or Iowa, you might qualify with a lower score, whereas if you live in Massachusetts, New Jersey, or DC, you will likely need a higher score. In general, your chances of becoming a Semifinalist are greatly improved by scoring 4-5 points above the average cutoff score for your state.

The Selection Process: Commended, Semifinalist, Finalist

National Merit Scholarship 2

 

Commended Students

High scorers on the PSAT/NMSQT may find themselves named Commended Students by the NMSC in September of their senior year. Generally, the top 3%-4% of PSAT scorers receive commended student status, or about 35,000 students. This is certainly an accomplishment, but it means that these students did not receive high enough qualifying scores to be named a semifinalist this cycle, as usually semifinalists score in the top 1% of PSAT takers.

However, Commended Students do receive letters of commendation from the NMSC, to recognize the significant academic achievement of scoring so well on the PSAT. And while Commended Students are not eligible to compete for the official National Merit Scholarship, as semifinalists are, by being recognized in this way they often do become candidates for special merit scholarship awards offered by statewide agencies and corporate sponsors. You can read more about that below under “Special Scholarships.”

National Merit Semifinalists

Test takers who score in the top 1% of the PSAT become Semifinalists, a significant achievement. Each year the NMSC awards semifinalist status to around 16,000 high school students. Gaining recognition as a National Merit Semifinalist is a prestigious achievement to include on college applications, and many colleges and corporate sponsors offer special scholarships to these students, even if they don’t become finalists.

At the same time, of course, semifinalists are eligible to submit a scholarship application to become National Merit Finalists. This application is actually quite similar to the college application process. Semifinalists must submit to the NMSC:

Be sure to get advice and feedback from a trusted source on your materials, especially the essay. Reaching semifinalist standing is not a guarantee that you will become a National Merit Finalist. You need a strong application that shows the NMSC why you’re a great all-around candidate for a merit scholarship, not just a strong student.

Finalists

The strongest semifinalist applicants are named National Merit Scholarship Finalists, and are notified in February of their senior years. Their high schools are also notified, and principals are sent Certificates of Merit to present to the Finalists.

Winner Selection

Finally, from the remaining Finalists, approximately 7,500 students are selected as Scholars. From March until the end of the school year, National Merit scholarship winners are awarded one of three types of National Merit Scholarship. Some come directly from the NMSC, while others are awarded by businesses, foundations, professional organizations, and colleges:

  1. A National Merit Scholarship for $2,500. All Finalists are evaluated by a committee of college admissions officers and high school counselors. These one-time scholarships are awarded by state. Winners are selected without consideration of students’ finances, college preference, intended course of study, or career plans.
  2. Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards. These awards are given to relatives of employees, residents of a community in which a business operates, or to Finalists whose intended major and/or career are relevant to the sponsor. Some awards renewable for all four years of college, while others are one-time awards.
  3. College-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards. Finally, officials from each sponsor college select finalists who have (1) been accepted for admission at that college and (2) informed NMSC that the school is their first choice. These college-sponsored awards are renewable for up to four years. The deadline for reporting a first choice can be found here.

Special Scholarships

Additionally, around 1,000 National Merit program participants who do not become Finalists win Special Scholarships from corporate and business organizations. Students must meet the sponsor’s criteria and submit an initial entry form. Then, NMSC contacts candidates through their high schools to request more detailed scholarship applications. The candidates are then evaluated by the NMSC and awarded later in the school year. These awards may be single-time or renewable for up to four years.

Final Thoughts

The National Merit Scholarship is only one of many merit scholarships that students can win in the college application process, but it is among the most prestigious. Furthermore, in addition to the cachet of becoming a National Merit Scholarship winner, there are a variety of additional benefits to participating in the National Merit program. Reaching the status of Commended Student or Semifinalist is a strong indicator of your academic excellence to include in your application, and may enable you to apply for Special Scholarships.

The best way to get yourself in the running for the National Merit Scholarship is to prepare for the PSAT/NMSQT. Don’t wait until junior year; get ahead of the curve as much as you can. After that, if you do become eligible to apply for finalist standing, don’t write your application alone! Much like admission to selective universities, National Merit program participants are evaluated on much more than their academics. Make sure you have a trusted partner in your corner to help guide you through the application.

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