National Merit Scholarship (How to Win It!): The Winner’s Guide

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The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic competition for scholarships and recognition that started in 1955.

Each year, approximately 7,500 Finalists receive scholarships. About 1,100 outstanding National Merit participants who are not Finalists also receive Special Scholarships annually.

Some colleges even offer free tuition or full-ride scholarships to National Merit Finalists.

Scholarship money is always great, but it isn’t the only benefit to the National Merit program. Becoming a National Merit Finalist is a prestigious honor that can give your chances of college admission a major boost.

So, how can you reap the benefits of becoming a National Merit Finalist? Read this guide to learn everything you need to know!

Odds of Winning a National Merit Scholarship

Before we get started, you should know that earning a National Merit Scholarship is even more competitive than earning acceptance to an Ivy League college.

  • Millions of students take the PSAT each year. About 16,000 students become Semifinalists, and 15,000 become Finalists.
  • Of the Finalists, about 7,500 receive scholarships.

Of course, even if you don’t win a scholarship, becoming a Semifinalist or Finalist is a great honor.

It can make you a more competitive college applicant and earn you additional scholarship money from some colleges.

So, let’s find out how to increase your chances of success.

How to Enter the National Merit Program

Entering the National Merit Program is simple: Take the PSAT (formally known as the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) during the fall of your junior year in high school.

The test is usually administered in October.

If you meet certain qualifications, taking the PSAT/NMSQT automatically enters you in the National Merit Scholarship competition.

These qualifications are:

  • Being enrolled as a high school student who is progressing normally toward graduation
  • Planning to enroll full-time in college the fall after you graduate from high school
  • Being a U.S. citizen or U.S. lawful permanent resident who plans to become a U.S. citizen

On your PSAT test form, you will answer four questions that determine whether you meet these requirements.

Next Steps: Qualifying for Scholarships

Of course, taking the test is only the beginning. To continue through the competition, you’ll need to:

  • Score in the top one percent of PSAT test-takers
  • Find out if you’re a Semifinalist or a Commended student
  • Complete an application (if selected as a Semifinalist)
  • Submit SAT scores
  • Find out if you’ve qualified for scholarship(s)

Let’s take a closer look at each step of this process.

Score in the Top One Percent

After you take the PSAT, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) receives and reviews scores.

  • If you meet the basic qualifications described above, they look at your Selection Index.
  • The Selection Index is calculated by doubling the sum of your Reading, Writing and Language, and Mathematics scores.

About 16,000 high scorers become Semifinalists.

  • This represents less than one percent of test-takers, meaning you’ll need to score in the top one percent to qualify as a semifinalist.

However, scores are considered on a state-by-state basis, so that students from across the nation have a chance to qualify.

Students often ask what score they’ll need to become a Semifinalist. This is hard to answer, because it varies from year to year. It’s usually somewhere around 1400.

For more information, you can call the NMSC at 847-866-5100 and ask about the previous year’s cutoff in your state.

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Receive Notification of Semifinalist/Commended Status

You’ll have a long wait before you find out if you’ve achieved Semifinalist status.

In late September of your senior year, about 34,000 students receive a Letter of Commendation. Commended Students are based on a Selection Index score that is slightly lower than the Selection Index score needed to become a Semifinalist.

  • Commended students don’t continue in the competition, but some do receive Special Scholarships.
  • It’s also something positive to mention on your college applications.

An additional 16,000 students are notified that they have qualified as Semifinalists, usually in early September. All Semifinalists will receive application materials from NMSC through their schools.

Complete an Application

To advance from Semifinalist to Finalist, you will need to complete the NMSC application. 15,000 of the 16,000 Semifinalists become Finalists.

These applications are usually due in early October. The application is similar to a college application.

It includes:

  • Transcript
  • SAT scores
  • Information about your activities and leadership roles
  • An essay
  • A recommendation letter from the principal or a school official designated by your principal
  • Information about your school’s grading system and classes

To become a Finalist, you must:

  • Have excellent academic performance all four years of high school (preferably a 3.5 GPA or higher)
  • Have SAT scores that “confirm your PSAT performance”
  • Continue meeting basic qualifications, including being enrolled in the last year of high school and planning to enroll in college in the fall

In the “Tips” section at the end of the article, we’ll discuss how to put your best foot forward with an impressive application.

Submit SAT Scores

SAT scores are part of the NMSC application. You’ll have to take the SAT on approved dates, usually during the fall of senior year.

  • The NMSC must receive your scores by December 31 of your senior year.
  • Although the NMSC doesn’t give a specific cutoff score for the SAT, they do say that your score should confirm your PSAT score.

Basically, your score should be close to your PSAT score to demonstrate that your PSAT performance wasn’t a fluke. You should aim for around 1400 or better.

Qualify for Scholarships

In February, about 15,000 Semifinalists receive a letter that they have advanced to Finalist standing.

Your high school principal will receive a certificate and present it to you.

From the Finalist group, winners of Merit Scholarships are selected. These selections are based on abilities, skills, and accomplishments.

Between March and mid-June, 7,500 Finalists learn that they have been awarded Merit Scholarships. There are three types of scholarships:

  • National Merit $2500 Scholarships: Every Finalist is considered for these single payment scholarships, which are awarded on a state-by-state basis. Selections are not based on financial circumstances, major or college choice, or career plans.
  • Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards: Corporate sponsors designate awards for children of employees or members, residents of communities where the company operates, or Finalists with career plans the sponsor wishes to encourage. These awards are usually $500-$2000 and may be one-time awards or renewable for all four years of college.
  • College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards: Officials of sponsor colleges select winners from Finalists who have been accepted for admission and have informed NMSC that the college is their top choice. These awards are renewable for four years of undergraduate study.

Schools that offer free tuition or free-ride scholarships to National Merit Scholars include:

  • Texas A&M
  • University of Oklahoma
  • University of Arizona
  • Auburn University
  • University of Tulsa
  • Baylor University

In addition, about 1,100 excellent National Merit Program participants who are not Finalists receive Special Scholarships.

These may be one-time awards or renewable for four years of study. Students must meet the sponsor’s criteria and submit an entry form to the sponsor organization.

Tips for Winning a National Merit Scholarship

Now, we’ll look at tips that will help you qualify for a National Merit Scholarship.

These tips fall into two categories: earning a high score on the PSAT and submitting a top-notch NMSC application.

How to Earn a High Score on the PSAT

  • Answer PSAT practice questions or take practice tests on the CollegeBoard’s website. Becoming familiar with the structure, format, and question types is extremely helpful.
  • When you get a question wrong, take the time to read the right answer and understand why it’s correct. Why did you get the question wrong? What steered you in the wrong direction? What’s a better strategy you can use in the future?
  • Based on how you perform on practice tests, determine your strengths and weaknesses. As you continue preparing, focus on improving in your areas of weakness.
  • This may mean drilling math questions, studying vocabulary words (along with roots, prefixes, and suffixes), brushing up on grammar, or practicing with reading passages.
  • If you need a lot of help in a subject area, consider hiring a tutor or working with a teacher at your school.
  • Continue taking practice tests/answering practice questions to ensure that you’re improving and getting closer to your target score.

How to Submit a Competitive NMSC Application

  • Have a GPA of at least 3.5 or better. You should have performed consistently well throughout high school, and you should have taken challenging courses. Of course, you can’t change your previous performance and schedule, but do your best to earn the highest grades possible now.
  • Earn a high score on the SAT (preferably 1400 or better). You can prepare for the SAT in much the same way you prepared for the PSAT.
  • Show deep extracurricular involvement in a few areas you’re passionate about, along with leadership experiences whenever possible.
  • Cultivate positive relationships with your principal and other school officials. Ask for your recommendation at least three weeks ahead of time. Provide a list of qualities, experiences, and accomplishments they can mention in your letter.

Writing an Excellent Personal Essay for Your Application

Your NMSC essay must be 500-600 words.

The personal essay topic varies each year. Here’s one example from a previous year:

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.

Like your college application essay, this essay is intended to showcase your unique personality and perspective.

Follow the same guidelines you should follow when writing your college application essay:

  • Brainstorm what aspects of your life, personality, and values you’d like to share with the NMSC.
  • Write in your authentic voice and be honest. The committee wants to know who you are as an individual.
  • Open with an anecdote that introduces the topic you’d like to address. Use specific details that make the story yours.
  • Be reflective. What did you learn from the experience you’ve described? How did it help you grow or influence your life? Why does the topic you selected matter to you?
  • Proofread and edit. Make sure you’ve conveyed your ideas clearly and using appropriate conventions. Cut unnecessary fluff and clarify confusing parts.
  • Have a parent, friend, and/or teacher read your essay and provide feedback.

Final Thoughts: National Merit Scholarship (And How to Win It!)

If you become a National Merit Scholar, it’s a huge honor that can qualify you for several scholarships (and even a full ride at some schools).

  • Winning a National Merit scholarship is a long and highly competitive process, but it’s doable with practice and dedication.

The steps you must take to win a National Merit scholarship—earning good grades, participating in leadership and extracurricular activities, preparing for and performing well on the SAT, building relationships with teachers and administrators, and crafting a personal essay—are also essential for applying to college.

  • So, aiming for a National Merit scholarship is a win no matter what happens. Do your best, but don’t stress too much over the results.

You’ll learn a lot from the experience, and you’ll build the competitiveness of your college application. If you win a scholarship or two along the way, that’s icing on the cake.

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