The National Merit Scholarship

Posted on July 28, 2016 in Scholarships

Getting to Know The National Merit Scholarship

Winning a National Merit Scholarship is a prestigious distinction for high school students in the United States. The winners of these scholarships often receive national attention in the press when they are announced each spring. So who are these “scholars”, what did they do to win such an award, and what do they actually get? We’ve answered some of the most common questions for you below.

Who’s In Charge of the National Merit Scholarship?

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) was established in 1955. Since then, the program has expanded to include the original National Merit Scholarship and academic competition, since students compete for funding via their academic record (grades and test scores). Past notable recipients of the National Merit Scholarship include Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Stephenie Meyer (the author of the Twilight novels), and M. Night Shymalan.

How Much Money is Awarded to Winners?

Each National Merit Scholarship winner is awarded $2,500, which they must use at a regionally accredited college or university in the United States. The scholarship is awarded only once per student. Winners who transfer to a different (approved) institution may transfer their scholarship.

What Are The Scholarship Entry Requirements?

In order to qualify for the scholarship competition, students must meet ALL of the following requirements:

  1. They must take the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test)
  2. They must be enrolled in high school (homeschoolers who are on course to graduate high school also qualify)
  3. They must be planning to enroll in college as a full-time student by the fall following their high school graduation
  4. They must be a citizen of the United States, or be a legal permanent resident of the United States and intend to become a US citizen at the first opportunity that the law allows.

How Much Do PSAT/NMSQT Scores Matter?

Quite a bit. First of all, students cannot apply for the National Merit Scholarship (NMS) without taking the PSAT/NMSQT. Actually completing the test is the first qualifier. Second, the higher a student’s test score, the better his or her chances are for qualifying for the NMS.

Exactly what numerical score a student must achieve in order to qualify for the NMS program is a bit of a mystery. Over the years, the PSAT has undergone changes in content, length, and format. These changes affect scoring of the test, which means no one can be sure of what score will lead to NMSP qualification.

Many students take the PSAT/NMSQT as a “practice test”, seeking to gain experience for the SAT. They are focused on scoring high on the SAT in order to increase their chances of admission at colleges and universities to where they have applied. Since many students do not realize the potential benefit of scoring high on the pre-SAT, they go into the test unprepared and squander the opportunity to qualify for the NMSP.

A perfect PSAT/NMSQT score doesn’t mean that you’re through to the next step in the scholarship process, though. The NMSC selection committee is looking for additional qualities in its scholarship winners.

Beyond the Test Scores

According to the National Merit Scholarship Program website, approximately 50,000 high school students qualify for the program each year. About 16,000 of those students (the ones with the highest test scores) continue on to become Semifinalists.

Students who do not make it to Semifinalist standing receive Letters of Commendation from the NMSC. These letters may be used to apply for other merit-based scholarships, and can be included with (or amended to) college applications.

Each semifinalist is required to complete and submit a scholarship application to be considered for Finalist standing. The NMSC application requires students to submit their academic transcript, SAT scores, a list of their extracurricular activities and leadership roles, and a personal essay. They must also include a recommendation from a high school principal (or someone whom the principal has designated), and information about the school’s curriculum and grading system.

It goes without saying that a high grade point average (GPA) is expected of all applicants, as the program is considered an academic competition. It should be noted that not all GPAs are alike, since students taking honors-level and Advanced Placement courses are expected to have worked harder to earn their grades. And since GPAs are calculated over the entire four-year high school career, a B- from freshman year can dash a student’s hopes of becoming an NMS Finalist.

During the Semifinalist/Finalist process, students are required to submit their “first choice college”, as the NMSC wants to see where potential winners plan to study. Students must have applied to their first choice school in order to be named a scholarship winner.

When Are the Winners Announced?

By February of each year, the NMSC whittles the Semifinalists down to approximately 15,000 Finalists. About half of those students (approximately 8,000) are awarded National Merit Scholarships in May.

What Are My Chances of Qualifying for the NMS?

According to the Official Student Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT, published by the NMSC in October of 2015, less than 1% of the top scoring high school seniors will qualify as Semifinalists. To keep qualification fair and open for students throughout the country, the selection of students represents the top-scoring students from each state (again, this is where PSAT scoring gets tricky.)

Of course, your chances of qualifying are zero if you don’t take the PSAT/NMSQT, and many students do not. You automatically increase your chances of qualifying by taking the test, so you should proactively find out your local test date and start prepping for the test, sooner rather than later.


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