Since 1955, the National Merit Scholarship Program has awarded recognition and scholarships to top scholars across the country. Fewer than 1% of students are designated as National Merit Scholars in this annual competition. How does one become eligible for this exclusive award, and what does it take to win?

How to Qualify for the National Merit Scholarship

Each year’s Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) is the qualifying test for a student’s entry to the competition and begins a two-year process. Every October, more than a million high school juniors enter the National Merit Scholarship competition when they take the PSAT/NMSQT. Around 16,000 will qualify as Semifinalists, but only 7,600 will be selected as National Merit Scholars. Semifinalists are selected by state, in proportion to the percentage of each state’s graduating seniors of the U.S. graduating class.

An exceptional PSAT score, during the student’s junior year, is only the first step. Semifinalists are notified in September of their senior year. These students must next submit an application, including essays and details of their academics, extracurricular achievements, awards, and leadership roles. A school official must submit a recommendation, and the semifinalist must score extremely well on an ACT or SAT test prior to December of their senior year. Scores must be reported to the NMSC no later than December 31.

The Types of National Merit Scholarships

Once the submissions are in, the waiting begins. Beginning in March, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation notifies about 7,600 Finalists of their selection as National Merit Scholars. Three types of awards exist:

  1. National Merit $2,500 Scholarship: A committee of college admission officers and high school counselors selects these winners.
  2. Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarships: Corporate sponsors designate their awards for different factors, such as children of their employees or Finalists with career plans the sponsor wishes to encourage. These scholarships may either be renewable for four years of undergraduate study or one-time awards.
  3. College-sponsored Merit Scholarships: Colleges select winners of their awards from Finalists who have been accepted for admission and have chosen that sponsor college or university as their first choice. These awards are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study.

Typically, about 1,100 students may receive special scholarships from participating corporate sponsors. Sponsor colleges also award about 4,600 scholarships to students who designate the college as their first choice.

Winning the National Merit Scholarship

The number of winners in each state varies in proportion to the state’s percentage of the nation’s graduating high school seniors. A committee of college admissions officers and high school counselors selects the winners. Qualifying scores also vary by state; more densely populated states usually require students to have higher scores. About 1,500 participants who score below the Finalist level receive Special Scholarships provided by corporate sponsors. Merit Scholarship winners must notify the National Merit Scholarship Corporation of college enrollment plans at an accredited institution, for full-time undergraduate study towards a degree. National Merit Scholars at these schools may be honored as Honorary Merit Scholars, recognizing their achievement without scholarship funds.

How to Prepare for the PSAT

Winning these scholarships all starts with the PSAT. Use these helpful tips:

  • Academically strong sophomores should take the PSAT (offered only directly through high schools) as practice. This will not qualify you for the National Merit Competition. 
  • Take an OnToCollege SAT/PSAT Prep course on your own, or through your school, if it is an OnToCollege school partner
  • Practice over the summer and fall with lots of practice questions. Free practice tests are available from the College Board. The new digital PSAT uses the Bluebook™ app from the College Board. Download and practice using the app.
  • The PSAT has two required sections: Reading & Writing, and Math (with and without a calculator). Merit Scholar prospects should take at least one section twice a week all summer.
  • Then take the PSAT again during your third year of high school, usually as a junior.

Being a National Merit finalist triggers many opportunities for both private scholarships as well as scholarships offered by universities. It can be a great way to become a college graduate with minimal debt. Start studying, and you’ll be on your way!