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Qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship: Everything You Need to Know

National Merit Scholarships are financial awards offered as part of a national academic competition. If you are interested in learning how to earn a National Merit Scholarship, read on.

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?

The National Merit Scholarship Program is a national academic competition that offers recognition and scholarships to select high school students. The competition is administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

Approximately 1.5 million high school juniors compete for the scholarships each year. Of these entrants, some 50,000 with the highest PSAT scores will qualify for the recognition and scholarships awarded by the National Merit Scholarship Program.

What we know as “the PSAT” is more formally called the PSAT/NMSQT (or Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test).

How does a student win a National Merit Scholarship?

Students qualify for the National Merit program by achieving a high score on the PSAT in their junior year. Students with a high score may be designated by the NMSC as Commended Students or Semifinalists. Semifinalists must apply to become a Finalist. From the Finalists, approximately 7,500 students are selected to become National Merit Scholarship winners. However, Commended Students and Semifinalists have opportunities to win other scholarships (more on this below.)

Students learn in September of their senior year if they scored well enough to qualify as either a Commended Student or a Semifinalist. Both are impressive distinctions that are worth adding to their college applications.

What are the eligibility requirements for the National Merit Scholarship?

  • Students must take the PSAT/NMSQT in the specified year of the high school program and no later than the third year in grades 9 through 12. This generally means that students should take the test during the fall of their junior year.
  • Students must be enrolled as a full-time high school student (traditional or homeschooled), be in good academic standing, and plan to accept admission to college no later than the fall following completion of high school.
  • Eligible students must attend high school in the United States, the District of Columbia, or U.S. commonwealth and territory; or be a U.S. citizen or permanent residents of the United States attending high school abroad.
  • Students attending high school outside the U.S. must be a citizen of the United States, or be a U.S. lawful resident (or have applied for permanent residence, the application for which has not been denied) and intend to become a U.S. citizen at the earliest opportunity allowed by law.

Students’ eligibility will be determined by the NMSC based on some straightforward and simple questions asked at the beginning of the PSAT.

My student is a Commended Student. What does this mean?

Your student scored in the top 3%-4% on the PSAT in your state! About 34,000 students receive this recognition. Commended Students receive a letter of commendation from the NMSC, recognizing this significant academic achievement. And while Commended Students are not eligible to compete for the official National Merit Scholarship, they may be a candidate for Special Scholarships offered by corporations and businesses. (See below.)

My student is a National Merit Semifinalist. What does this mean?

Your student is one of the highest-scoring test-takers in your state, which represents a significant achievement. Each year the NMSC awards Semifinalist status to about 16,000 high school students. Earning 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.

My student is a National Merit Semifinalist. What do we do next?

Submit a scholarship application to become a National Merit Finalist. This application is very similar to a college application.

Semifinalists must submit:

  • An official high school transcript or other academic record
  • A letter of recommendation from the high school principal (or school official designated by the principal)
  • A personal essay
  • SAT or ACT scores

Achieving Semifinalist standing does not guarantee that a student will become a National Merit Finalist. If your student needs help with the National Merit Scholarship application, college advisors at International College Counselors can help. A strong application will show that they’re deserving of a merit scholarship and not just a strong test taker.

As part of the scholarship application, students must also submit official SAT or ACT scores. These scores should corroborate the student’s PSAT performance — National Merit Finalists should also be high scorers on the SAT or ACT.

My student is a National Merit Finalist; what does this mean?

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

How are the top National Merit Scholars chosen, and what Merit Scholarship Awards do they receive?

Starting in March and continuing until mid-June, the approximately 7,500 students selected as National Merit scholarship winners are awarded one of three types of National Merit Scholarship.

  1. National Merit $2,500 Scholarships. All Finalists are evaluated by a committee of college admissions officers and high school counselors. These single-payment scholarships are awarded by state. Winners are selected without consideration of the student’s financial circumstances, college choice, intended major, or career plans.
  2. Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards. Corporate sponsors designate their awards for children of their employees or members; for residents of a community where a company has operations; or for Finalists with career plans the sponsor wishes to encourage. Some scholarships are renewable for all four years of college, while others are one-time awards.
  3. College-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards. Officials from each sponsor college select Finalists who have 1) been accepted for admission at that college and 2) informed NMSC that the sponsor college is their first choice by the published deadline. These college-sponsored awards are renewable for up to four years.

What are the Special Scholarships?

Every year, close to 1,000 National Merit program participants who do not become Finalists are given Special Scholarships by corporate and business organizations. Students must meet the sponsor’s criteria and eligibility requirements, as well as submit an entry form. Then, NMSC contacts the chosen candidates through their high schools and requests the completion of more detailed scholarship applications. The candidates are then evaluated by the NMSC. Scholarships awarded may be one-time awards or renewable for four years of undergraduate study.

Thoughts from International College Counselors

Remember that, while you may take the PSAT in freshman and/or sophomore year, the only year it counts for the National Merit competition is your junior year.

Want to earn a National Merit Scholarship? The best place to start is by making excellent grades and by preparing for the PSAT. Start as soon as possible! The summer is a great time to study for the PSAT; it’s offered only once a year and only in the fall. After that, if a student qualifies to apply to be a Finalist, they should get help! A trusted partner can help craft the application to increase the chances of success.

Additional Assistance

For questions and support on scholarships, as well as anything and everything related to college admissions, contact International College Counselors. Visit https://internationalcollegecounselors.com/ or call 954-414-9986 x6.

We can also help you connect with the best fit tutor for your student.