What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?
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What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?

The National Merit Scholarship Program (NMSP) is a nationally-recognized academic competition administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). Instituted in 1955, the NMSP was created to recognize academically excellent high school students in order to encourage them to further pursue rigorous academic studies. It has since become one of the most prestigious scholarship competitions in the United States. According to the most recent NMSP Student Guide, 7,880 scholarships worth a combined 35 million dollars will be awarded to 2025 Finalists. While that is a lot of money and a lot of scholarships, the path to receiving one of them is long and arduous. Below is your guide to this complex, but possibly rewarding journey!

How do I enter the competition?

The first step to becoming a National Merit Scholar is taking the PSAT/NMSQT—the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. National Merit Scholarships are awarded in the Spring of your graduating year, but you must begin the process much earlier. For most students, this means they take the PSAT/NMSQT during the fall of their junior year in high school. Be mindful that there are other versions of the PSAT available, but they are not considered for acceptance into the competition. If you are not sure which version is being offered at your school, check with your counselor.

NMSC is strict about students taking the PSAT/NMSQT at the proper time. If you are following a different timeline for high school graduation, such as graduating early or taking more than four years to graduate, visit nationalmerit.org for more information and talk with your counselor to ensure you take it at the correct time. The competition is also only open to high school students (traditional and homeschooled) in the United States, so if you are a U.S. student going to high school abroad, you can still enter, but you must prove citizenship or legal residence. Finally, you must be planning on going to college full-time directly after graduating, which is something to consider if you were thinking about taking a gap year instead. You will be asked questions about all of the above requirements before you begin the PSAT/NMSQT.

The PSAT/NMSQT is administered by high schools on a school day of their choosing in October. You cannot register for the PSAT/NMSQT through your College Board account as you do for the SAT. If you are unsure if your school is giving that exam or when exactly it is, check with your counselor as soon as possible at the beginning of your junior year. If you are truly serious about competing, you will want to have time to prepare for the exam in advance.

While you will receive your PSAT/NMSQT scores before the end of November, you will not know if you made it through to the next step of the NMSP until the fall of your senior year. Eligibility as a Semifinalist depends on your Selection Index Score, which is double the sum of your Reading, Writing and Language, and Math test scores, which are different from your section scores. Test scores range from 10–40 and are based on your raw score—how many questions were answered correctly. College Board scales the raw score into a test score and then does some further math to create the section score, which is the 200–800 score you are more familiar with.

Yes, it is complicated, but the important thing to know for NMSP is that your individual test scores for Reading, Writing and Language, and Math are used for qualification purposes, rather than the final score out of 1600 that colleges use. The NMSC compiles all Selection Index Scores (twice the sum of the test scores) by state and determines a cut-off score for each state. The cut-off score for each state depends on Selection Index Scores and the population of graduating high school seniors in that state in relation to the total population of graduating seniors from all states.

The average qualifying Selection Index Score for 2023 was 217, but again, every state is slightly different. Answering every question correctly on the PSAT/NMSQT would result in a 240 Selection Index Score. Thus, qualifying students are those who score extremely high.

What happens next?

Out of 1.5 million students, only 3% will qualify for recognition through NMSP, and most of those students will receive Commended Status. NMSC will send those students a Letter of Commendation recognizing their high scores. There are some Special Scholarships available through corporations, and these require further entry forms available from the corporation. It is worth it to look through the list of participating corporations (and know where your parents work!) to see if you might be eligible for such a scholarship should you receive Commended Status.

Around 16,000 students will qualify as Semifinalists, and then the competition proceeds much like a college admissions process. If selected as a Semifinalist, you will be asked to submit an application detailing your academic performance and extracurricular activities as well as a personal essay. At this point, simply having a high PSAT/NMSQT score and good grades is not enough, because every Semifinalist is required to have those. NMSC looks for academically excellent students who demonstrate leadership in and care for their communities.

You must also confirm your PSAT/NMSQT performance by taking the SAT or the ACT. NMSC does not provide an exact score Semifinalists must achieve on the SAT, but you should aim for doing as well as or better on these exams in relation to your PSAT/NMSQT performance. You need to prove that your PSAT/NMSQT score was not a fluke.

Your high school principal must also endorse you in order for you to become a Finalist. The principal is responsible for sending information about your grades and character, as well as information about the school’s curriculum and grading policy. This allows NMSP some context regarding your academic achievement in order to better compare it with schools across the nation. Schools are also required to notify NMSC if their academic performance declines or something else happens that would necessitate withdrawing their endorsement. Obviously, events out of your control can happen, but don’t cheat on a test or start fights before or during participation in NMSP!

If you and your high school complete this process, it is highly likely that you will become a Finalist and receive a Certificate of Merit recognizing your achievement. Out of those 16,000 Semifinalists, 15,000 will become Finalists. Thus, if you qualify as a Semifinalist, you should put the effort in to continue the process. Even if you do not win a scholarship through NMSP, the Certificate of Merit is an excellent honor to have on your resume for colleges and other scholarships. Plus, you are probably compiling all that application information and an essay for colleges anyways, so you might as well put it all to use again.

What can I win as part of the National Merit Scholarship Program?

If selected as a Finalist, you are then in the running for one of the 7,250 scholarships available through NMSP. To be honest, unless you are fortunate enough to be awarded a $10,000 renewable corporate scholarship (for which there are caveats), the scholarships aren’t worth that much money. You could be awarded a $2,500 National Merit Scholarship from NMSC itself. That is awarded in a one-time lump sum. While not an insignificant amount of money that will help you pay for textbooks and student fees during college, that is all it is. There are plenty of corporate scholarships for various amounts of money, but if your parents (or grandparents, in some cases) do not work for the company, you are out of the running. Your parents’ employment information is part of the application process, so NMSC will determine your eligibility based on that.

The “best” option to hope for is that a school you want to attend is part of the NMSP. Exact figures depend on schools, but a renewable scholarship of up to $2,000 is a good deal. The caveat is that you already have to have applied to that school, been accepted, and told NMSC that the school is your first choice. You have to be committed to going to that school to receive the scholarship.

Regardless, if you win a scholarship, is it highly unlikely that it will provide you with a “free ride” to college. While being a National Merit Scholar is impressive, it should not be your only plan to pay for college because it won’t. However, being an NMSP Finalist makes you very eligible for a lot of other scholarships and opportunities that may offer more money for college. If you have what it takes to become an NMSP Finalist, you are bound to receive other offers if you do the work to apply for them.

At the same time, not being selected for the NMSP in any way also does not mean that you will not be able to get scholarships elsewhere. There are plenty of scholarships out there that will be more interested in your other abilities outside of your grades and ability to score well on a standardized test.

I want to compete. How can I improve my chances?

If you want to have a chance at being a part of the NMSP, the best thing you can do is prepare for the PSAT/NMSQT in advance. Committing yourself to some advance preparation for the PSAT/NMSQT will also allow you to accomplish two things at once. The PSAT is extremely similar to the SAT; the same skills are assessed in each exam. Overall, the PSAT/NMSQT is shorter in time and questions asked. Therefore, you can use SAT prep materials to study for the PSAT, and at the same time, you will also be preparing yourself for taking the SAT as well. Remember, the PSAT/NMSQT is the first step to competing in the NMSP, and to be a finalist, you will have to confirm your PSAT/NMSQT performance with similar SAT scores.

In order to best prepare for the PSAT/NMSQT, you first need to take a practice exam to better understand what improvements you need to make to raise your score. You might need more practice in specific content areas, or you might need to practice the format and timing of the exam to do your best. You can read more detailed information about preparing for the exam here  . You can also find more extensive information about improving your scores in specific sections: Reading , Writing and Language, and Math.

If you are selected as a Semifinalist and plan to move forward in the competition, you will have to write a personal essay. This is the place to demonstrate your unique character and abilities to NMSC. Writing a personal essay can be quite difficult, and making it stand out from the crowd can be even more difficult. A quick Google search will turn up lots of examples, which I suggest reading to help you figure out how you want to approach your own essay. Be mindful to use the examples you read as just that, examples for inspiration. Do not copy anything! Ask a teacher or two to read over your essay for feedback and incorporate that into your revisions.

Competing in the NMSP is a long, arduous process that will end in success for only a select few students in the United States. However, this does not mean that success is impossible or that the time spent competing is wasted. If you are selected for Commended status and cannot move on in the competition, it is still a worthwhile honor to add to your college applications. It will set you apart from other students. Even if you are not selected at all for the NMSP, time spent preparing for the PSAT/NMSQT will help you on the SAT.  You will be able to use your score report to learn more about your strengths and weaknesses so that you can continue to make improvements for the SAT.

No matter what, competing in the National Merit Scholarship Program is a worthy goal that will help you accomplish many things on your to-do list for college applications. Give it a shot; you never know what could happen!


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