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How to Win a National Merit Scholarship

If you’re a high achieving high-school student studying in the US, hoping to fund your college education through undergraduate scholarships, you’ll definitely want to know all about how you can win the National Merit Scholarship. It is arguably the most prestigious of merit based scholarships awarded to high school students in the US to fund their undergraduate studies. This is also the most competitive of all undergraduate scholarships with 1.6 million students getting into this race every year. In this article we want to tell you how you can win a National Merit Scholarship. But we also want to assure you, if this particular merit scholarship is not on the cards for you, don’t lose heart. The steps you take towards becoming a national merit scholar will also put you in good stead to apply for scholarships for students beyond this one.

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic merit based scholarships competition conducted by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a privately funded, not-for-profit organization. The aim is recognition of academic prowess and granting university scholarships for students of the United States. The program began in 1955 and has been evolving according to the academic needs of students. National Merit Scholarship Corporation disburses nearly $40 million in scholarships every year to around 8700 students by the conclusion of the competition.

Who can apply for the National Merit Scholarship

Eligibility to become a national merit scholar:

There are a three elements in the eligibility criteria to be a national merit scholar:

#1 You must appear for Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) during the fall of junior year.

#2 Students must enroll full-time in high school student and plan to go to college during the fall following completion of high school

#3 Eligible students must attend high school in the United States, the District of Columbia, or US commonwealth and territory; or be a US citizen or permanent resident of the US attending high school abroad.

Competency to become a national merit scholar:

Once you’re eligible, there’s a lot more you will need to claim success in this merit based scholarship competition:

#1 a great PSAT score

#2 a record of high academic performance throughout high school

#3 a strong scholarship application

#4 an impressive recommendation ideally from the high school principal

#5 finally, a great SAT score for good measure.

Merit Scholarships

Selection process of the National Merit Scholarship Corporation  


This is where the race begins. PSAT NMSQT is taken by high school students as practice for SAT but it also throws them in competition for the National Merit Scholarship. The format is a 2 hours and 45 minutes long test and very much resembles the actual SAT. The Reading section is 60 minutes and has 47 questions. The Writing section is 35 minutes long and has 44 questions. And finally, the Math section is 70 minutes long and has 48 questions. The PSAT NMSQT test is slightly shorter and slightly simpler than SAT. If you’ve been taking the various SAT preparatory tests prescribed by the College Board, namely, PSAT 10 in your sophomore years and PSAT 8/9 in your freshman years, you’ll be well prepared to face the PSAT NMSQT by the time you’re in junior high.

Selection Index Scores

After students seeking merit scholarships appear for PSAT/NMSQT in their Junior year, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation calculates the annual Selection Index Scores state-wise. Think of it as a cut-off PSAT score for this highly selective merit based scholarship. Students with the highest Selection Index Scores are, therefore, recognized in each state. This means, the qualifying scores vary from state to state and from year to year.

Each state is allocated a percentage of semi-finalists based on the percentage of that state’s graduating seniors out of the nation’s total. What it means is that the competition is going to be stiffer in some states than the others. For example, if you’re in New Jersey, Massachusetts or DC, you may face a higher cut-off. It’s like paying more for a Big Mac in cities where there’s higher demand. It might seem unfair, but the idea is to give a fair representation to students from all the states. By the way, you may still receive national percentiles on your PSAT score report, but state cut-offs are the ones that the National Merit Scholarship Corporation uses to select semi-finalists.

Commended Students and Semi-finalists

The “recognized” students fall into two categories – Commended Students or Semi-finalists – depending on their PSAT scores. Commended students are those students who have outstanding academic promise, but unfortunately not Semi-finalists. They receive a Letter of Commendation. The Semi-finalists move to the next stage of the race for undergraduate scholarships.

Apply for Scholarship

National Merit Scholarship Corporation requires Semi-finalists to apply for scholarship in much the same way that one applies to colleges. Semi-finalists are invited to apply through their high schools. The materials required in this application are academic record, a recommendation letter from the school principal, and an essay. The application should show academic excellence, community involvement, and wins in extracurricular activities. Therefore, it’s important to put together an outstanding application to make it to the final round.

Finalists and winners

Students have to appear for SAT after qualifying as Semi-finalists. National Merit Scholarship Corporation then releases a list of Finalists based on the SAT scores and the application. The final awardees of the National Merit Scholarship (and a few college and corporate scholarships) are announced from the list of Finalists.

National Merit Scholar

How hard is it to be a National Merit Scholar?

Let’s just say, getting to school in a handstand walk may be easier. To put things in perspective, let’s study the funnel of students seeking undergraduate scholarships via the PSAT/NMSQT route and eventually winning the merit scholarship.

  • Test participants:

In the academic year 2018, 1,600,000 students in junior high school appeared for PSAT/NMSQT with plans to enter college in 2020 with merit scholarships.

  • Program recognition students:

Every year out of PSAT/NMSQT entrants, only 50,000 students (with representation across all the states in the US) get National Merit Recognition.

  • Commended Students: 

Of the 50,000 students, 34,000 students get the Commended Students status. However, their participation in the race for this prestigious merit scholarship ends here.

  • Semi-finalists: 

The remaining 16,000 advanced to semi-finalist status. These semi-finalists are to fill out a scholarship application and appear for SAT.

  • Finalists:

15,000 get notified as Finalists based on SAT scores and applications. That’s about 90% of the semi-finalists.

  • Merit scholars:

Out of these, only 7,500 seekers of undergraduate scholarships for students win one of the three merit scholarships awarded by National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Only 2,500 students win the prestigious National Merit $2500 Scholarship. The remaining 5,000 receive corporate-sponsored scholarships or college-sponsored scholarships. Another 1,100 non-finalists win Special Scholarships for students offered by a few sponsoring companies.

Out of all the applicants seeking merit-based scholarships, only about 1% get to the Semi-Finalist stage and only about a 0.5% get awarded merit scholarships. Finally, only 0.15% win the National Merit Scholarship.

So, if at any stage of this grueling process you fall through the sieve, don’t kick yourselves. This competition is so stiff that you must apply for scholarships more widely if you’re keen to cover your college tuition costs.

Steps to win the National Merit Scholarship

If you want to be a National Merit Scholar you’ve got to start early. Those who start planning for merit based scholarships in their early high school years tend to make the most out of the various opportunities for scholarships for students. The actual competition process begins in Junior High. The steps and the timeline is as follows.


StepTimeWhat happens
Fall of Junior High
Appear for PSAT/NMSQT
Fall of Senior year
The National Merit Scholarship Program selects and notifies Commended and Semi-Finalist Students. Commended students are out of the race.
3Sep - Oct:
Fall of Senior year
Semi-finalists must apply for scholarship to get to the Finalist status. You will need to submit your academic record, a recommendation from your school principal, and an essay.
4Nov - Dec:
Fall/winter of Senior Year
You need to submit your SAT scores by Dec 31 if you’re aiming for the National Merit Scholarship Program in the coming summer. So you need to appear for SAT at least a month before, i.e. sometime in November.
5Jan - Feb
Winter of Senior year
Your SAT score must confirm your PSAT/NMSQT performance. The National Merit Scholarship Program selects and notifies Finalist Students.
6Mar - Apr
Spring of Senior year
The National Merit Scholarship Program notifies winners of Special Scholarships recipients (these are not merit scholars). These are corporate scholarships for students awarded based on the scholarship applications and special eligibility criteria set out by the sponsors.

Simultaneously, also announces:
- National Merit $2500 Scholarship Awardees
- College sponsored scholarship awardees
- Corporate sponsored scholarship awardees
7Apr - JulNames of the merit scholarship awardees are released in the press. National Merit confirms students’ attendance and enrolment at respective colleges.
Start of college
Scholarship check award sent to college in the National Merit Scholars’ name.

Undergraduate scholarships

Different awards and recognitions under National Merit Scholarship

What you stand to gain from being a National Merit Scholar

The National Merit Scholarship Program gives a one-time award of $2,500 towards the student’s freshman year of college. It’s not renewable. It’s neither a full ride scholarship nor a full tuition scholarship. However, after this initial $2,500 amount, you get access to a variety of high-dollar scholarships and awards. Plus, you win bragging rights. Even colleges display their “National Merit Scholars” as a matter of pride. That makes the massive effort fully worth it.

What are corporate-sponsored merit scholarships

National Merit Scholarship Corporation scholarships are supported by about 220 corporations, company foundations and businesses, and by NMSC’s own funds. These undergraduate scholarships for students can be renewable awards that cover up to four years of undergraduate study or one-time scholarships that provide a single payment when recipients enter college. These awards can range from $2,500 to $5,000 for a single payment and $1,000 to $10,000 for renewable awards.

What are college-sponsored merit scholarships

In addition to corporates, approximately 180 colleges and universities provide National Merit Scholarships. If a student who has advanced to Finalists status plans to attend a college that is sponsoring the award, he/she may be eligible for College-sponsored Merit Scholarships. The monetary value varies college to college. They are typically four-year renewable awards ranging from $500 to $2,000 per year.

Who’s eligible for a ‘Special Scholarship’

A Special Scholarship is a corporate-sponsored award. They are awarded to outstanding students who aren’t Finalists. To be considered for a Special Scholarship, students must meet the sponsor’s criteria and the entry requirements for the National Merit Scholarship Program. They also must submit an entry form with the sponsor.

PSAT/NMSQT is crucial

PSAT/NMSQT is mainly a SAT practice test. But we hope this article has shown you how it is a crucial competition to succeed in if you want recognition for academic excellence apart from the money that comes with it. Therefore you must give the PSAT your best shot. A lot of opportunities emerge from a good PSAT score even if you don’t get to the merit scholarships. That said, aim high. It’s not easy to win a National Merit Scholarship but it’s not impossible either. And with some studying, practice, and preparation, you can ace that test.

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