Use our “How to Become a National Merit Scholar” tips below to get you started on your college career.
1. Maximize your score on the PSAT/NMSQT
The first step to becoming a National Merit scholar is to achieve a top score on the PSAT, which is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). You must take the PSAT in October of your junior year of high school. So, in order to qualify as a National Merit scholar, you must be enrolled as a high school student. In addition, you must be a citizen or a lawful permanent resident of the United States.
2. Not every school offers National Merit Scholarships
The extent to which recognition through the National Merit scholarship program is rewarded varies by school. Some institutions provide a large financial payment to students for each of the four years of their undergraduate careers, some provide a smaller lump sum upon matriculation as a freshman, and some offer no reward at all. Naturally, it is very important to know which of your target schools compensate National Merit scholars the most. This information could have a great deal of influence over your choice of school, as well as over the amount of effort you put into your National Merit scholarship campaign. After all, if your dream school does not offer rewards to National Merit scholars, it would be silly to waste your time and effort studying for the PSAT or preparing an attractive Merit Scholarship application.
3. Get the Official Student Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT
Every year, the College Board publishes a comprehensive and detailed guide to the PSAT/NMSQT. This document is available at the College Board website. It includes a practice exam and comprehensive information about the test, including a content outline and a description of the testing conditions. The bulletin published by the College Board is well regarded as a preparatory tool for the PSAT/NMSQT. Reading it carefully will eliminate any risk of an unpleasant surprise on the day of the exam.
4. Make use of the other resources provided by the College Board
Besides the exam guide, the College Board provides a number of other resources for aspiring National Merit scholars and anyone else who is planning to apply to college. For instance, there is an online tool you can use to plan for college and career. It has a wealth of features, including an online score report and a personalized plan for study. It also provides you with a range of appropriate colleges and careers based on your interests and your responses on a personality test. The College Board online tool can help you find the schools where National Merit scholars are rewarded most highly.
5. Learn the mechanics of the National Merit scholarship program
The first step on the way to recognition as a National Merit scholar is to be recognized as a commended student. From these, semifinalists are determined by their selection index score, which is the sum of the verbal, math, and writing scores. In most states, you must score in the top two percent to qualify as a semifinalist. Finally, finalists are selected based on their National Merit applications, which incorporate a broad body of work.
6. Determine the criteria for recognition as a National Merit scholarship finalist
It is a huge honor to be designated as a National Merit semifinalist. It requires a top performance on a very difficult standardized test. However, if you want to become a finalist, you must demonstrate excellence in a wider range of pursuits. Specifically, you must complete the Merit Scholarship application, which includes a complete high school transcript, a summary of your academic and extracurricular activities and achievements, a school recommendation, and a self-descriptive essay. Only about 16,000 students are selected as National Merit finalists each year.
7. Mark important dates on your calendar
The National Merit scholarship program operates on roughly the same schedule every year. The semi-finalists are named in early September, at which point they receive an application packet through their high schools. The finalists will be identified in February. It is important to know these dates so that you can allocate your time properly.
8. Consider the Special Scholarships
Besides the normal National Merit Scholarships, there are a number of scholarships funded by business organizations. Each of these sponsors has its own criteria for applicants, though at minimum candidates must meet the requirements of the National Merit Scholarship Program. Most of these scholarships are delivered in a single lump sum, but some are renewable for the four years of the recipient’s undergraduate career. In order to receive one of these scholarships, a student must submit an application to the sponsor organization. The candidates for these Special Scholarships are drawn from a pool of students whose PSAT scores were high, though not quite high enough to earn a place among the finalists. The winners of the Special Scholarships are selected by a group of National Merit Scholarship Corporation employees. The selection is based on a thorough examination of each student’s skills and accomplishments in high school.
9. It is easier to qualify in a less populated state
The National Merit Scholarships are administered with no regard to gender, race, religion, or ethnicity. However, there is one determinant of success that is unrelated to your score on the PSAT: the population of the state in which you live. This is one of the sneaky secrets of the National Merit Scholarship program: it is easier to qualify if you live in Wyoming than if you live in New Jersey. This is because the semi-finalists are the highest-scoring students in each state. Therefore, states with fewer students will be less competitive. Obviously, it would not be practical to move to a different state simply to improve your chances of earning a scholarship, but it is a good thing to keep in mind as you navigate the process, so you can adjust your expectations accordingly.
10. Learn the disbursement policy for your scholarship
If you are lucky enough to receive a National Merit scholarship, it will be disbursed to you in one of a few ways. Some students receive their scholarships in a single lump sum, mailed out in early September of their freshman year. Others receive money every September and January of their first four years in college. Colleges that operate on the quarter system may disburse payments three times a year: in September, December, and March.
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Many students take the PSAT in the fall of their junior year. What a lot of students may not notice is the full name of the test is PSAT/NMSQT, or Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Thus, the PSAT is not just good practice for your SATs. It’s also the first step in becoming a National Merit Finalist and hopefully, earning a $2,500 scholarship from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).
In this article, we’ll discuss what steps you need to take to become a National Merit Finalist and compete for a scholarship. We'll also give you advice on how to write a strong application and maximize your chances of becoming a National Merit Scholar.
Here’s how the numbers break down:
Each year, about 1.6 million students take the PSAT. Of the juniors who take the exam, about 16,000 earn scores that qualify them as Semifinalists (that's around 1%). This group is narrowed down to 15,000, who become Finalists. Of this group, about 7,500 are awarded scholarships of $2,500 a year (that can be renewed each year you're in college).
This article will explain the three key steps you need to follow to win the National Merit scholarship, from meeting the entry requirements, to scoring well on the PSAT, to submitting a standout application.
Step 1: Meet the Entry Requirements
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) requires you to have a few qualifications to even be considered for the scholarship:
You must be enrolled as a high school student, progressing normally toward graduation.
You must plan to enroll full time in college starting the fall following high school graduation.
You must be a U.S. citizen or U.S. lawful permanent resident planning to become a U.S. citizen.
These requirements will be checked with a few questions at the beginning of the PSAT.
Step 2: Score in the Top 1% of the PSAT
Becoming a National Merit Finalist is competitive and requires a top score on the PSAT. Although it varies from state to state, most students must score above 1400 (out of 1520) to qualify as a Semifinalist, which means they can compete to move on to Finalist standing.
How can you achieve a top 1% score on the PSAT? Prepare with high-quality materials. Identify your weak points and work to improve them. If the Reading section confuses you, spend the majority of your time practicing those sections. If math isn’t your thing, commit yourself to drilling PSAT Math problems. The National Merit competition uses a Selection Index that is based on your Reading, Math, and Writing test scores, so mastering all three sections is key.
Take control of your learning and study with practice questions and sample tests. This practice will also pay off later when you take the SATs in the spring of your junior year and fall of senior year.
For more info, check out our detailed guide to attaining National Merit Semifinalist status.
Step 3: Submit an Excellent Application
Complete the NMSC application requirements by fall of your senior year (usually early October). This application allows 15,000 of the 16,000 Semifinalists to move on to Finalist standing.
If you don't become a Finalist or don't qualify, you may still get word that you're a Commended Student or remain as a Semifinalist, which are great distinctions that will stand out on college applications. However, only Finalists are eligible for National Merit Scholarship awards.
The online NMSC application is the same as your college application in some ways and different in other ways.
You must submit the following:
- Your academic record (transcript)
- SAT scores*
- Information about your activities and leadership roles
- A personal essay
*You have to take the SATs on approved dates, usually in the fall of your senior year, and make sure to send along your score report to NMSC. They need to receive your scores by December 31st of your senior year. While there is no strict cutoff for SAT scores, they must be competitive like your PSAT scores (usually around 1400 or above) so they know your PSAT wasn't a fluke.
You must submit the following:
- A recommendation from your high school principal or someone the principal designates as a school official
- Information about your school’s curricula and grading system
Let's dig into each component to maximize your chance of building a strong application to win the National Merit Scholar title.
Academic Record and SAT Scores
The National Merit Corporation is first and foremost looking to award academic achievement. There is no strict cutoff, but a competitive GPA (3.5 and above) and high SAT scores (approximately 1400 and above) are recommended. Your academic record should also show that you challenged yourself with honors and AP classes. When you're a high school junior, there isn't much you can do about this, other than continue to excel in your classes.
Extracurricular Activities and Community Service
The NMC is also looking at the skills and accomplishments shown in your application. Demonstrated leadership goes a long way--for example, leading in Student Council or other student organizations.
Your activities should reveal your passions and interests--it is usually better to show “depth over breadth.” In other words, get deeply involved in a few activities you’re passionate about rather than showing minor participation in every club, team, and organization your school has to offer. Almost all activities are valuable if they show your commitment, leadership potential, and ability to work with and help others.
Recommendations go a long way. Cultivate good relationships with your teachers, counselor, and principal and provide a “brag sheet” for them with the qualities and accomplishments you would like them to include in your recommendation.
Your brag sheet may include the following:
- What six adjectives best describe you?
- What do you consider your greatest accomplishment(s)?
- What are your strongest goals for the next five years?
- What is a meaningful experience you have had during high school?
These anecdotes will make writing a lot easier, and they'll thank you for this.
Make sure to ask for your recommendation at least three weeks in advance of the deadline, and follow up with your writer to make sure it'll be submitted on time. The earlier you notify them, the more ahead you'll be of your classmates, most of whom will need college application letters.
The personal essay adds your voice to your application materials. Your essay is the place where you can share your unique story and perspective and make your application materials come to life.
Here is an example of a past National Merit essay question:
To help the reviewers get to know you, describe an experience you have had, a person who has influenced you, or an obstacle you have overcome. Explain why this is meaningful to you. Use your own words and limit your response to the space provided.
The space allows for about 500 - 600 words.
You should focus on two important components of the essay. First, the NMC wants to see that you can express yourself clearly and powerfully through writing. Make sure to proofread, edit, and revise for any spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, or weaknesses in syntax and diction.
Second, your essay reveals how you think about yourself, your accomplishments, and your goals. What do your experiences mean to you? What do they reveal about your identity? Spend some time brainstorming before you decide what aspects of your identity are most important to share with the NMC readers.
For example, did a group science fair project show you the power of collaboration in making new discoveries? Did a Student Council debate reveal the complexity of perspectives on a single issue? Did Lisa Simpson teach you the importance of sticking to your principles, even if your family may not always agree?
The topics are endless, and there is no best answer, but whatever you choose should reveal something significant about who you are. Once you have your first draft, ask a friend, family member, counselor, or English teacher for feedback on what worked and what didn’t. It’s a short essay, so make sure every sentence is there for a reason and important for telling your story.
Staying motivated and committing yourself to all these goals will put you in the best position toward becoming a National Merit Finalist. Remember, only 15,000 students (< 1%) are chosen as Finalists, and of those, only about 7,500 students receive scholarships. On a percentage basis, it's even more competitive than getting into the Ivy League, so even with all your hard work, you’ll still need a certain amount of luck!
NSMC notifies students if they have become finalists in February of their senior year. Scholarship notifications go out in March. By that time, most of your college applications will be done and submitted.
Now you just have to try to relax and wait for the decisions to come! If you complete all the steps mentioned above, you can be confident that you’ve done all you can – now hopefully the National Merit Scholarship Corporation will recognize all your hard work.
Want more tips on how to get a top PSAT score? Check out our guide on how to get a perfect PSAT score for all the info you need to know.
Are you striving for perfection on the SAT? Read our detailed guide by our resident SAT full scorer.
Aiming to get into a top-tier school? Check out our article: What's a good SAT score for the Ivy League?
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