Last Updated: May 29, 2020
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…
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 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.
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. The table below shows the semifinalist cutoff scores by state for the Class of 2017. 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.
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.
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 2017 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.
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.