Black woman, White woman, Asian woman, sitting at a table with books and papers

The National Merit Scholarship: What It Is and How to Win

What is the National Merit Scholarship and how do you qualify for it? Short answer: it depends on your PSAT score. But there's a lot more to it than that!

What is the National Merit Scholarship and how do you qualify for it? Well, the short answer is it depends on how you score on the PSAT, but there’s more to it than that. Below you’ll find a basic explanation of what this award is all about, plus how you can qualify with your test score. If you’ve already taken the PSAT, chances are you’ve heard about the National Merit Scholarship Program. Of course, that doesn’t mean you know exactly what it is or how to get it. If you haven’t taken the PSAT yet but plan to soon, National Merit is the scholarship to keep in mind. The best part is you’ll be killing two birds with one stone: you get to practice for the SAT and you just might earn a scholarship in the process!

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?

When it all comes down to it, the National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic competition where you can potentially get recognition and qualify for scholarships based on your PSAT score. High school students can become eligible for the program by first taking the Preliminary SAT (PSAT)/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT).

There are three main requirements for entering the National Merit Scholarship Program:

  • Take the PSAT/NMSQT when you are in high school grades 9 through 12
  • Be enrolled as a high school student (traditional or homeschooled)
  • Be a US citizen, lawful permanent resident, or planning to become a citizen as soon as possible

The PSAT/NMSQT has questions specific to the National Merit Scholarship Program, and your responses to these questions help determine whether you qualify. Also keep in mind these are just the general entry requirements. Things get more complicated the further you advance…

Related: PSAT Test Prep Tips: Essential Advice

National Merit cutoff scores and how to qualify

So, how does the National Merit Scholarship work? Every year, after all PSAT/NMSQT have been taken and scored, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) calculates the annual Selection Index Scores. About 50,000 entrants with the highest Selection Index Scores qualify for recognition and the National Merit Scholarship Program; those students are then broken down further into Commended Students or Semifinalists, depending on their PSAT scores. (Their high schools will notify them if they qualify as a Commended Student or Semifinalist.)

Commended Students

Commended Students are notified by late September after taking the PSAT. They’re chosen based on the national Selection Index Score, which varies annually. Commended Students scored lower than the score needed to be a Semifinalist (more on that below). Commended Students don’t get to continue in the competition for National Merit Scholarships but they do receive letters of commendation recognizing their academic promise.

Semifinalists

In early September, about one-third (approximately 16,000 students) of the 50,000 high scorers qualify as Semifinalists and are chosen to represent the state they live in. Anything below the following National Merit cutoff scores would result in a student being ineligible to be a Semifinalist. You can find a table of score estimates here—the cutoff score changes each year. 

Finalists

In February, about 15,000 Semifinalists advance to Finalist standing. Within the Finalist group, winners are chosen for the Merit Scholarship based on their abilities, skills, and accomplishments. About 7,500 finalists will be selected to receive a Merit Scholarship in between the beginning the March and mid-June.

Related: 3 Smart and Easy Strategies to Win More Scholarships

How to win the National Merit Scholarships

Once you get to the Finalist round, high academic standards and requirements must be met. To become a finalist in the National Merit Scholarship Program, students had to:

  • Meet the three requirements above (under “What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?”)
  • Get a recommendation from your high school principal or someone designated by the principal
  • Have a record of high academic performance throughout high school
  • Submit a completed scholarship application

Lastly, Finalists must take the official SAT and earn scores that confirm their performances on the PSAT/NMSQT and have the official report sent to the NMSC. The three main types of National Merit Scholarship awards:

  • The National Merit $2,500 scholarships are single-payment scholarships that are awarded by state.
  • The Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarship awards can be renewable for four years of undergraduate study or awarded just one time. They are given to children of the company’s employees or members, for residents of the company’s community, or to Finalists with career plans related to the company. The awards vary in what they’re worth.
  • The College-Sponsored Merit Scholarship awards are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study at the Finalist’s chosen college or university. The sponsoring college or university chooses the winners. The awards also vary in what they’re worth.

In addition to these awards, about 1,200 students who participate in the National Merit Program who are considered outstanding but do not qualify as Finalists are awarded “Special Scholarships.” Plus, some colleges and universities may award their own scholarships based on NMSQT scores as they see fit. Simply cracking the top 50,000 may also make your college applications more competitive for admission.

Related: How to Win Scholarships With Your SAT Scores

Give the PSAT your best shot

It’s not easy to win a National Merit Scholarship—but it’s not impossible either. You never know where you’ll stand until your year’s PSAT scores come out. And with some studying, practice, and preparation, you can ace that test. The recognition and chance of winning scholarships makes it worth the challenge!

Didn't take the PSAT? You can find a lot of other merit-based awards using our Scholarship Search tool.

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
Yuhlani Patterson

Yuhlani Patterson

High School Student

CollegeXpress has helped me find so many scholarships that fit me. They match me to colleges I have specific interest in to make searching for colleges way easier and more efficient. CollegeXpress refers me to schools that have my major of interest and backup schools if I want to change my mind. CollegeXpress also gives out their own scholarships, so you have even more of a chance at gaining multiple scholarships. This website has helped me de-stress from the pressure of not being able to afford college, [of finding] what schools are right for me, and how to find easy access to scholarships that most people never knew existed.

Katelyn

Katelyn

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress gave me options of schools with my major and from there I was able to pick what was most important to me in a school. Everything was so organized that I could see all the information I needed.

Hannah Nelsen

Hannah Nelsen

High School Class of 2022

CollegeXpress has helped me look at colleges that fit my interests by taking my profile and matching it to colleges that have the programs I'm looking for. It has the ability to connect me to colleges so I can be contacted by them and look at them more in-depth to find what's right for me. Additionally, the scholarship database is super beneficial for getting scholarships for college. Not only does it help lift the financial burden of college but it shows all the opportunities available. Overall, CollegeXpress has been very helpful to me.

Jessica Rinker

Jessica Rinker

Student, Fairhaven High School; CollegeXpress Student Writer

My high school counselor introduced me to CollegeXpress freshman year. It has made such a difference in high school, and I plan to continue relying on it in college. CollegeXpress is my go-to because it addresses each aspect of being a student. There are the articles you’d expect regarding college applications and financial aid, but you will also find advice on things like de-stressing and maintaining relationships while balancing a heavy course load. CollegeXpress will also keep you updated on current scholarships through e-mails each Saturday. (They don’t harass you with any product promotion like so many other sites do.) CollegeXpress is a lot like an older sibling who has already conquered the challenges you are facing. Now, they are reaching out a helpful hand. I say take it.

Asia Stockdale

Asia Stockdale

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress helped me overcome a huge hurdle. Because of the small town I live in, I felt like I would never achieve more. I felt like I could never go beyond because of costs. I feared I wouldn’t be able to find scholarships. I had no idea of where to start. With CollegeXpress, I easily found scholarships—they came to me. It was a helper, and I was instantly matched with opportunities to go above and beyond educationally.

College Matches