What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?
National Merit Scholarship for High Schoolers
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation is a private, not-for-profit organization that conducts the National Merit Scholarship Program and has provided students with scholarships each year since 1955. This program allows talented students to earn money towards their college tuition 💸! The National Merit Scholarship program is based on standardized test scores throughout the state and country, and based on your personal scores you can qualify to be a semi-finalist and beyond to win the scholarship.
National Merit Scholarship Program Qualifications
In order to have a chance at winning the scholarship, there are some requirements you must fulfill first:
- Take the PSAT/NMSQT in your third year, or junior year, of high school 📝
- Be a high schooler on track to graduate and begin college no later than the fall after you graduate 🎓
- Go to high school in the United States, the District of Columbia, or a United States commonwealth or territory OR meet the citizenship requirements outlined on the NMSC’s website 🏫
Taking the PSAT/NMSQT for National Merit 📚
Taking the PSAT/NMSQT, or Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, is the first step to becoming a National Merit Scholar. Every October, high schools around and outside of the United States offer juniors the opportunity to take the PSAT. About 1.5 million juniors take this test every year! 😮
How do I prepare for the PSAT? 📖
The PSAT is similar to the SAT in structure and content, so you can prepare for the PSAT just how you would for the SAT. Practice is key for this exam! Khan Academy is a great resource for practice questions, as well as working through some released practice tests. More details about the PSAT’s structure can be found here.
How is the PSAT scored? 💯
Your total score on the PSAT ranges from 320 to 1520. There are two sections to this score: Evidence-Based Reading & Writing and Math. On each of these sections, you can score anywhere from 160 to 760.
However, the scoring for National Merit works a bit differently. Three sections make up your Selection Index Score: Reading, Writing & Language, and Math. On each of these sections, you can score anywhere from 8 to 38. You can calculate your Selection Index Score by adding up your test section scores and multiplying that sum by 2. This score can also be found in your score report. This will be what determines your score that is taken into account for the National Merit scholarship, you can check the cutoff scores to see if you would qualify.
The Path to Earning a National Merit Award
You’ve taken the PSAT and fulfilled the other requirements! Now what 🤔? Make sure you're on the look our for your National Merit award.
Commended Students 📜
Sometime in September, around 34,000 PSAT-takers receive Letters of Commendation. Commendation is based on a nationwide score cutoff—if your Selection Index Score meets this cutoff, you will be a commended student! These cutoffs and score indexes change every year so make sure to look up the latest year to get a good idea of where you stand beforehand and whether or not you will qualify for a national merit award.
National Merit Semifinalists 🏅
In September, around 16,000 students will be notified that they are Semifinalists. Semifinalist status is based on a statewide score cutoff to ensure that all states are represented. To see the score cutoffs for each state from the past few years, visit this page! Note: Just like with Commendation, these score cutoffs are based on your Selection Index Score.
National Merit Finalists 🏆
If you become a Semifinalist, there are a few things you need to do before getting a chance at becoming a Finalist. You will need to fill out NMSC’s Online Scholarship Application (OSA), in addition to:
- Your high school transcript
- A letter of recommendation from your high school principal or a designated school official
- An essay
- SAT or ACT scores (this may change based on the pandemic)
You should also report your first-choice college on the OSA. This will allow you to qualify for college-sponsored merit scholarship awards if your first-choice college is a sponsor college (a list of the sponsor colleges for 2021 can be found here). For reference, here are the requirements and instructions provided by the NMSC for 2021 Semifinalists.
In February, 15,000 of the 16,000 Semifinalists will be notified that they have become Finalists.
Types of National Merit Scholarships
Merit Scholarships 🤑
About 7,600 of the 15,000 Finalists will receive a Merit Scholarship. There are three types of these scholarships:
- National Merit $2500 Scholarships
- Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards
- College-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards
A list of colleges and corporations that sponsored awards in 2021 can be found here.
Special Scholarships 💸
Special scholarships are awarded by corporations and businesses to around 1,100 students who received high scores (but not Finalists) on the PSAT and meet specific criteria designated by the sponsor. You will likely need to submit an entry form or additional application to the sponsor organization to qualify for these scholarships. Winners of these scholarships will be announced by the sponsor organizations.
Additional Scholarships 💰
Some universities offer scholarships to Semifinalists (rather than only Finalists) or do not require you to declare them as your first-choice college—more information can be found here or on college websites. For example, Fordham University offers full tuition to Semifinalists and Finalists, even if you do not list them as your first-choice college.
National Merit Scholarships are not the only choice though make sure you do a full college scholarship search to help you find additional scholarships. There are also additional national scholarships available for high schoolers to help you through college, check them out with this top 40 list of national scholarships.