What Is the National Merit Scholarship Program? How Do You Enter?

The National Merit Scholarship chooses winners based on PSAT scores. Learn more about the timeline, application process, and scholarship award amounts.
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  • The National Merit Scholarship is a prestigious merit-based scholarship.
  • High school juniors must earn a top PSAT score to be eligible.
  • The application process for National Merit Scholars takes over a year.
  • The program sets state-specific cutoffs for National Merit Scholarship semifinalists.

The National Merit Scholarship Program is one of the most prestigious merit-based scholarship programs. And every year, over 1 million high school juniors enter the competition for a National Merit Scholarship.

How do you become a National Merit Scholar? The process starts with the PSAT. The National Merit Scholarship Program identifies the top-scoring juniors on the PSAT and selects semifinalists from that group in each state.

With a complicated, state-specific scoring system and a multistep process, the National Merit Scholarship can be confusing. Our guide walks through the process, including how to apply, the timeline, and the scholarships awarded by the National Merit Scholarship Program.

What Is the National Merit Scholarship?

The National Merit Scholarship recognizes college-bound high school students with strong academic records. The scholarship program uses 11th graders' PSAT scores to select 50,000 high-scoring students.

Fewer than 1 in 3 of those students will go on to become a scholarship finalist. And only half of finalists become National Merit Scholars.

In addition to PSAT scores, the scholarship program considers academic preparedness for college, leadership experience, and recommendations when choosing scholarship recipients.

How Much Is the National Merit Scholarship Worth?

The National Merit Scholarship awards $2,500 to each National Merit Scholar. Every year, around 7,500 high school juniors receive a National Merit Scholarship.

In addition to a National Merit Scholarship, students with qualifying PSAT scores can receive merit scholarships offered by businesses and colleges. The corporate scholarships typically support the children of members or employees.

These scholarships may also fund students based on their location or career plans. One-time awards grant $2,500-$5,000. Some corporate scholarships offer renewable funding for up to four years that range from $1,000-$10,000 per year.

Nearly 4,000 college scholarships fund finalists planning to attend sponsor colleges. These awards typically offer $500-$2,000 per year, with the option to renew for up to four years.

The program also awards special scholarships to high-scoring juniors who did not qualify as finalists. These awards can be up to $10,000 per year.

How Do You Become a National Merit Scholar?

You can become a National Merit Scholar by taking the PSAT your junior year. This test is also known as the PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or PSAT/NMSQT.

You must exceed the minimum qualifying score on the PSAT/NMSQT to be eligible. The scholarship program uses something called the Selection Index — which is calculated based on your PSAT scores — to identify semifinalists and commended students. Specific semifinalist qualifying scores will vary depending on your state.

National Merit Scholarship Requirements

Students must meet the following entry requirements to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program:

  • Take the PSAT/NMSQT their junior year.
  • Be an enrolled high school student, including students who are homeschooled and who plan to attend college in the fall after graduation.
  • Attend high school in the U.S., with additional qualifications for U.S. citizens attending high school abroad.

PSAT Scoring Scale vs. National Merit Scholarship Scoring Scale

While total PSAT scores range from 320 to 1520, the National Merit Scholarship Program uses a different scoring scale. Instead of the general PSAT score, the program uses the Selection Index.

Each test-taker receives a test score ranging from 8-38 in Reading, Math, and Writing and Language. The Selection Index is double the sum of your three test scores, meaning it ranges from 48-228.

For the 2022 National Merit Scholarship, the cutoff score for the top 50,000 test-takers was 207. The Selection Index Qualifying Score for semifinalists varies by state, with some states requiring at least a 220 or higher.

What's the National Merit Scholarship Program Timeline?

The process for winning a National Merit Scholarship takes over a year. Juniors take the PSAT in the fall. The program then notifies the top 1% of test-takers the following fall, during their final year of high school.

For example, the timeline for the 2022 National Merit Scholarship cycle starts in fall 2022 and extends through fall 2024.

  • October 2022: Juniors take the PSAT/NMSQT and fill out a form to demonstrate their eligibility for the test. Around eight weeks later, or in December, test-takers receive their PSAT scores.
  • April 2023: After identifying around 50,000 eligible students, the program contacts high schools to confirm eligibility information.
  • September 2023: Test-takers learn whether they qualify as commended students or semifinalists. The semifinalists must meet certain requirements to become finalists.
  • February 2024: The program narrows down the semifinalists into a group of 15,000 finalists.
  • March-July 2023: Finalists receive notification of winning a National Merit Scholarship. Finalists can also win a corporate or college-sponsored scholarship. Eight hundred non-finalists receive a special scholarship.
  • Fall 2024: National Merit Scholars begin college and receive their scholarships.

The Process to Become a National Merit Finalist

Every year, the National Merit Scholarship Program recognizes around 50,000 high school juniors. However, the program only awards 7,500 National Merit Scholarships.

The process to become a finalist divides this group into commended students, semifinalists, finalists, and scholarship winners.

Commended Students vs. Semifinalists

Around 50,000 juniors meet the cutoff score for the National Merit Scholarship Program; however, only one-third of those students become semifinalists. The rest, or around 34,000 students, receive a commendation from the program.

Commended students receive letters of commendation. They are also eligible for special scholarships. Around 16,000 semifinalists will receive an application to continue the process and become a finalist.

Finalist Applications

After being chosen as a semifinalist, students must meet extra requirements to become a finalist. There's good news at this stage: Out of the 16,000 semifinalists, around 15,000 become finalists.

Semifinalists meet the following requirements:

  • Receive a recommendation from their high school principal.
  • Demonstrate a strong record of academic performance.
  • Submit a National Merit Scholarship Application, which includes an essay.
  • Meet minimum score requirements on the SAT or ACT to confirm PSAT performance.

Choosing National Merit Scholars

Around half of finalists receive a National Merit Scholarship. The program evaluates the finalists to determine scholarship winners.

To choose winners, the program reviews each finalist's academic record, their application essay, their school recommendation, and their school and community contributions. In addition to 7,500 National Merit Scholarships, finalists are eligible for corporate and college scholarships.

How Hard Is It to Be a National Merit Scholar?

The National Merit Scholarship Program is extremely competitive. Out of around 1.5 million eligible high school students, the program identifies 50,000 top scorers for commendation or a scholarship.

That means the program recognizes the top 3% of test-takers nationally. Less than 1% of test-takers will receive a scholarship. So how can you improve your chances of earning a National Merit Scholarship?

First, spend time prepping for the PSAT. Then, contact your high school to make sure your school participates in the program.

Finally, check your Selection Index after taking the PSAT. If you fall within the eligible range for your state, you have a good chance of becoming a commended student or semifinalist.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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