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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. Keep in mind these are just the general entry requirements. Things get more complicated the further you advance…

Related: 6 Quick and Essential Tips to Prepare for the PSAT

National Merit cutoff scores and how to qualify

So, how does the National Merit Scholarship work? Every year, after all PSAT/NMSQT exams 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 advanced 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 conditions 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 renewed for four years of undergraduate study or awarded all at once. They are given to children of company employees or members, residents of the company’s community, or those 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 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 it 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- and academic-based awards using our Scholarship Search tool.

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