Understanding the National Merit Scholarship Program from Spark Admissions (2023)

Understanding the National Merit Scholarship Program from Spark Admissions (1)

“National,” “Merit,” and “Scholarship” all sound very good when considered in the midst of college admission. Even better when you realize that just by taking the PSAT in the fall of your junior year, you’ve already entered yourself for this award!

But surely it can’t be as easy as that. After all, according to the College Board, last year more than4.5 million high school juniorstook the PSAT, but the National Merit Scholarship selected only 7,500 finalists. That’s less than a fifth of a percent.

What exactly is the National Merit Scholarship, and how does a high school student become a semifinalist or finalist? What does the selection process mean for your chances of admission at top colleges? And are there benefits to gaining National Merit recognition outside the initial scholarship opportunity?

Read on to find out how to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship, how to understand the process, and how to maximize your chances of becoming a winner.

National Merit Scholarship Eligibility

First things first. The National Merit Scholarship Program is a national academic competition for high school students to provide financial aid to attend college. It is administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

Students qualify for the National Merit program by achieving a high score on the PSAT. In fact, the test is more formally called the PSAT/NMSQT, which stands for Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test! Make sure that you take the official PSAT/NMSQT, rather than an alternative like the PSAT 10, which won’t count for the National Merit Scholarship.

Upon receiving their PSAT scores, high scorers may be designated by the NMSC as Commended Students, Semifinalists, or (after an additional application) Finalists. From the Finalists, around 7,500 students are selected to become scholarship winners.

There are a three major factors in eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship:

  • One, students must take the PSAT/NMSQT in the specified year of the high school program and no later than the third year in grades 9 through 12. This generally means that students should take the test during the fall of junior year.
  • Two, students must be enrolled as a full-time high school student (traditional or homeschooled), be in good academic standing, and plan to accept admission to college during the fall following completion of high school.
  • Finally, eligible students must attend high school in the United States, the District of Columbia, or U.S. commonwealth and territory; or be a U.S. citizen or permanent residents of the United States attending high school abroad.

Students’ eligibility for the program will be determined by the NMSC based on a few factual questions at the beginning of the PSAT/NMSQT.

How to Become a National Merit Scholar

While the PSAT/NMSQT is the starting point for receiving a National Merit Scholarship commendation or becoming a semifinalist or finalist, it’s not the end of the process. There are a few stages to the process that are important to keep in mind:

Get a Great PSAT Score!

Of course, the most important thing is to ace the PSAT/NMSQT as a junior. In order to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, most students need a test score within the top 1% of theirstate. That means the score cutoff will change depending on where you reside, and how well others in your state did on the PSAT. You’ll find out in September of your senior year if you scored well enough to become a semifinalist.

At this stage you might be named either a Commended Student or a Semifinalist. Both are impressive markers that are worth putting in your college application. Less than 5% of test takers receive any commendation from the National Merit program.

Write a Strong Application

If you are named a National Merit Semifinalist—congratulations! Now it’s time to apply to become a Finalist. Only a small percentage of semifinalists move onto finalist standing and receive the award, so this scholarship application is a crucial part of the process. You can find more information about this below, under “National Merit Semifinalists.”

Score Well on the SAT

Your test-taking isn’t over; in addition to doing well on the PSAT, National Merit Finalists are also high scorers on the SAT. As part of your scholarship application, you’ll also have to submit official SAT scores from the College Board.

The NMSC and College Board don’t suggest a cutoff score for the SAT, only that it would be “high enough to confirm your PSAT/NMSQT performance.” Thus, it’s very important that if you do score well on the PSAT, you should keep studying for the SAT, so that if you advance to Semifinalist standing, you’ll be in a good position to apply to become a Finalist.

Scores Needed for National Merit Scholarships

Once you’ve taken the PSAT, the NMSC calculates your overall score. They calculate selection index scores to evaluate PSAT scores each year. These selection index scores vary by state.

The average cutoff score is approximately 215, but if you live in Wyoming or Montana, you might qualify with a lower score, whereas if you live in areas like Massachusetts, New Jersey, or D.C., you will likely need a higher score. In general, your chances of becoming a Semifinalist are greatly improved by scoring 4-5 points above the average cutoff score for your state.

The Selection Process: Commended, Semifinalist, Finalist

If a student scores high enough on the PSAT to meet the index score for their state, they will be informed in the fall of their senior year, usually in September. High-scorers will either become Commended Students, or they will move into the Semi-Finalist stage, which kicks off the journey to potentially becoming a National Merit Scholar.

Commended Students

High scorers on the PSAT/NMSQT may find themselves named Commended Students by the NMSC in September of their senior year. Generally, the top 2%-3% of PSAT scorers receive commended student status, or about 34,000 students. This is certainly an accomplishment, but it means that these students did not receive high enough qualifying scores to be named a semifinalist this cycle, as usually semifinalists score in the top 1% of PSAT takers.

However, Commended Students do receive letters of commendation from the NMSC, to recognize the significant academic achievement of scoring so well on the PSAT. And while Commended Students are not eligible to compete for the official National Merit Scholarship, as semifinalists are, by being recognized in this way they often do become candidates for special merit scholarship awards offered by statewide agencies and corporate sponsors. You can read more about that below under “Special Scholarships.”

National Merit Semifinalists

Test takers who score in the top 1% of the PSAT become Semifinalists, a significant accomplishment. Each year the NMSC awards semifinalist status to around 16,000 high school students. Gaining recognition as a National Merit Semifinalist is a prestigious achievement to include on college applications, and many colleges and corporate sponsors offer special scholarships to these students, even if they don’t become finalists.

At the same time, of course, semifinalists are eligible to submit a scholarship application to become National Merit Finalists. This application is actually quite similar to the college application process. Semifinalists must submit to the NMSC:

  • Their high school transcripts or other academic record
  • A letter of recommendation (usually from your high school principal)
  • A personal essay, usually about an experience you’ve had or obstacle you’ve overcome

Be sure to get advice and feedback from a trusted source on your materials, especially the essay. Reaching semifinalist standing is not a guarantee that you will become a National Merit Finalist. You need a strong application that shows the NMSC why you’re a great all-around candidate for a merit scholarship, not just a strong student.


The strongest semifinalist applicants are named National Merit Scholarship Finalists and are notified in February of their senior years. Their high schools are also notified, and principals are sent Certificates of Merit to present to the Finalists.

Winner Selection

Finally, from the remaining Finalists, approximately 7,500 students are selected as Scholars. From March until the end of the school year, National Merit scholarship winners are awarded one of three types of National Merit Scholarship. Some come directly from the NMSC, while others are awarded by businesses, foundations, professional organizations, and colleges:

  1. A National Merit Scholarship for $2,500.All Finalists are evaluated by a committee of college admissions officers and high school counselors. These one-time scholarships are awarded by state. Winners are selected without consideration of students’ finances, college preference, intended course of study, or career plans.
  2. Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards. These awards are given to relatives of employees, residents of a community in which a business operates, or to Finalists whose intended major and/or career are relevant to the sponsor. Some awards are renewable for all four years of college, while others are one-time awards.
  3. College-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards.Finally, officials from each sponsor college select finalists who have (1) been accepted for admission at that college and (2) informed NMSC that the school is their first choice. These college-sponsored awards are renewable for up to four years. The deadline for reporting a first choice can be found .

Special Scholarships

Additionally, around 800 National Merit program participants who do not become Finalists win Special Scholarships from corporate and business organizations. Students must meet the sponsor’s criteria and submit an initial entry form. Then, NMSC contacts candidates through their high schools to request more detailed scholarship applications. The candidates are then evaluated by the NMSC and awarded later in the school year. These awards may be single-time or renewable for up to four years.

Final Thoughts

The National Merit Scholarship is only one of many merit scholarships that students can win in the college application process, but it is among the most prestigious. Furthermore, in addition to the cachet of becoming a National Merit Scholarship winner, there are a variety of additional benefits to participating in the National Merit program. Reaching the status of Commended Student or Semifinalist is a strong indicator of your academic excellence to include in your application and may enable you to apply for Special Scholarships.

The best way to get yourself in the running for the National Merit Scholarship is to prepare for the PSAT/NMSQT. Don’t wait until junior year; get ahead of the curve as much as you can. After that, if you do become eligible to apply for finalist standing, don’t write your application alone! Much like admission to selective universities, National Merit program participants are evaluated on much more than their academics. Make sure you have a trusted partner in your corner to help guide you through the application.


Understanding the National Merit Scholarship Program from Spark Admissions? ›

The National Merit Scholarship Program is a national academic competition for high school students to provide financial aid to attend college. It is administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). Students qualify for the National Merit program by achieving a high score on the PSAT.

How does the National Merit Scholarship process work? ›

These include completing an application, having a consistently very high academic record, writing an essay, being endorsed and recommended by a school official, and taking the SAT® or ACT® and earning a score that confirms the PSAT/NMSQT performance.

What PSAT score is needed to be a National Merit Scholar? ›

PSAT/NMSQT Cutoffs by State
U.S. State2023 Cutoff
47 more rows
Nov 15, 2022

What are the levels of National Merit Scholars? ›

Levels. The National Merit Scholarship Program features three levels of recognition: commended students, semifinalists, and finalists.

What happens if you win the National Merit Scholarship? ›

Students who are National Merit Finalists will nominate a college or university as their first choice. Some colleges award scholarship funding for renewable scholarships. Corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarship.

How many people get the $2500 National Merit Scholarship? ›

In each annual National Merit Scholarship Program, about 50,000 academically talented high school students are honored, but only some 16,000 of them are named Semifinalists.

How rare is a National Merit Scholar? ›

Of the 1.5 million applicants who submitted a PSAT score, there are only 7,500 National Merit Scholarship winners. This means you have a 0.5% chance of becoming a National Merit Scholar, making this one of the most competitive merit-based scholarships.

Does a 1400 PSAT qualify for National Merit? ›

Does a 1400 PSAT Qualify for National Merit? Based on the scores of real grade 11 students who took the PSAT, a score of 1400 puts you in the 97th percentile. You may not qualify for the National Merit Scholarship with this score: it also depends on the cut-off scores of your state.

Is National Merit finalist a big deal? ›

Final Thoughts. The National Merit Scholarship is only one of many merit scholarships that students can win in the college application process, but it is among the most prestigious.

What are the benefits of being a National Merit Scholar? ›

Awards range from $2,500 National Merit Scholarships to corporate- and college-sponsored scholarships. Variable and fixed renewable corporate-sponsored awards range from $500 to $10,000 a year, with single-payment one-time awards of $2,500 to $5,000.

Do National Merit Scholars get into Ivy League schools? ›

Ivy League schools don't award any merit scholarships, which includes National Merit Scholarships. These schools have the highest achieving students applying to their institutions and would rather award need-based financial aid to assist the most students in a fair and equitable manner.

What GPA do you need for National Merit Scholarship? ›

Maintain That GPA

National Merit Semi-Finalist and Finalist students take their academics seriously. You must maintain a 3.5 or higher GPA to qualify for the application process and maintain that GPA throughout your four years of high school.

How hard is it to be a National Merit Scholar? ›

have a record of very high academic performance in all of grades 9 through 12 and in any college course work taken. be fully endorsed for Finalist standing and recommended for a National Merit Scholarship by your high school principal. take the SAT or ACT and earn scores comparable to your semifinalist PSAT score.

What SAT score do you need for National Merit Scholarship? ›

The Selection Index ranges from 48-228 and is equal to the sum of your test scores for Math, Reading, and Writing and Language. For the 2022 scholarship cycle, 207 represented the national qualifying score cutoff.

How many people are National Merit winners? ›

Of the 15,000 Finalists, about 8,000 receive Merit Scholarship awards. All Finalists are considered for one of the 2,500 National Merit $2,500 Scholarships.

How selective is National Merit Scholarship? ›

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.

What is the difference between National Merit finalist and semifinalist? ›

Those who score in the top 1% achieve the distinction of National Merit Semifinalist. Most of these students move on to become National Merit Finalists, with some winning scholarship money for college. Being named a National Merit Semifinalist is a huge achievement along the path to college.

What is the difference between National Merit Scholar and finalist? ›

There's effectively no difference between Finalists and Scholars. Because Scholars can be chosen by sponsor colleges and corporate sponsors (unrelated to a student's merit), there is effectively no difference between National Merit Finalists and Scholars—colleges almost universally treat them the same way.

What percent of students become National Merit Scholars? ›

The top 1%, usually about 16,000 students, are named National Merit Semifinalists. Semifinalists may go on to apply for Finalist status and potentially win scholarship money.

Who won the National Merit Scholarship in 2023? ›

Congratulations to District 204 seniors Rajas Gandhi, Leisha Garg, Anika Prasad, Derek Sisbarro, and Jonah Elias, who were recently named 2023 National Merit Scholars by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

What is the PSAT score for National Merit Scholarship 2023? ›

The main qualification for National Merit is a high PSAT score (out of 1520). Thus, a high SAT score (out of 1600) will in most cases serve the same purpose. You can also rest assured that, unlike SAT and ACT scores, PSAT scores are not an official part of the college admissions process.

What percent of PSAT takers get National Merit? ›

Every year, more than 4.5 million high school juniors take the PSAT/NMSQT. Out of these students, only 7,500 will be selected to be National Merit Scholarship finalists—less than a fifth of a percent of the original number of test takers.

What is the average PSAT score for an 11th grader? ›

The PSAT scores scale makes it so that most test takers score around 920 (the halfway point between 320 and 1520). And the data backs this up: the average PSAT scores are 920 for 10th graders and 1010 for 11th graders.

Does Harvard accept National Merit Scholarship? ›

Outside Awards

Like many of our students, you may receive scholarship funds from sources outside Harvard, such as secondary schools, civic organizations, your parental employers, corporations, the National Merit Scholarship Programs, VA Benefits, and the ROTC.

Which university has most National Merit Scholars? ›

Records broken: University of Alabama sees highest enrollment, most National Merit Scholars.

What percent of people get National Merit finalist? ›

Approximately 95 percent of the Semifinalists are expected to attain Finalist standing, and about half of the Finalists will win a National Merit Scholarship, earning the Merit Scholar title.

Do Ivy Leagues care about National Merit Scholarship? ›

"All Ivy League schools, as well as several other very selective schools like Stanford, MIT and Caltech, do not give any academic merit scholarships.

Does MIT accept National Merit? ›

MIT provides financial aid on the basis of financial need only. We don't award money based on any measure of merit—academic, athletic, artistic, or anything else.

Does Yale accept National Merit Scholarship? ›

Although Yale does not award merit-based scholarships, many Yale students are recognized financially for their academic and extracurricular talents by outside organizations.

What PSAT score do you need for National Merit Semifinalist? ›

To be named a Semifinalist, you'll need a Selection Index score of 219. What score do you need on each section of the PSAT to achieve this score? As you read above, your Selection Index equals the sum of your three section test scores (each on a scale of 8-38) multiplied by 2.

What exam qualifies one for a National Merit Scholarship? ›

United States high school students enter the National Merit Scholarship Program by taking the Preliminary S A T/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT®), which serves as an initial screen of over 1.5 million entrants each year, and by meeting published program entry and participation requirements.

How does a student become a National Merit Scholar? ›

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an annual competition for high school students (both traditional and homeschooled) planning to attend college. Students need to take the PSAT/NMSQT, usually in their junior year, to be eligible for scholarships and recognition through the program.

How do you write a good National Merit essay? ›

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.

What do merit scholarships look for applicants that have? ›

Merit scholarships are typically awarded to students with academic excellence, athletic, or artistic achievements. Many providers offer scholarships to students who have high grades, leadership roles, SAT/ACT scores, and involvement in community service.

Does being a National Merit Scholar help you get into college? ›

At the very least, doing well in the National Merit Scholarship Program can boost your odds in the college application process. Award amounts are the focus of many frequently asked questions about the scholarship program and its benefits, but dollars aren't the only measure of how Merit Scholars benefit.

What is the average score on the National Merit PSAT? ›

The average PSAT/NMSQT score is about 920. A score between 1210 and 1520 puts you in the top 10% of test takers. The PSAT/NMSQT and the SAT are very similar tests, so your score on the PSAT/NMSQT can give you an idea of how you'll do when you take the SAT.

What SAT score do you need for National Merit Scholarship finalist? ›

Academic Record and SAT Scores

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.

How hard is it to get National Merit Scholarship? ›

Winning a National Merit Scholarship is a fairly difficult undertaking. Each year, the NMSC screens approximately 1.5 million qualifying entrants. Of those entrants, only about 16,000 students will be named Semifinalists based on their PSAT scores and other achievements.

How many people win National Merit Scholarship? ›

Of the 15,000 Finalists, about 8,000 receive Merit Scholarship awards. All Finalists are considered for one of the 2,500 National Merit $2,500 Scholarships.


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