Scholarships

The National Merit Scholarship Program 2023: An Overview

When it comes to college admission, words like “National,” “Merit,” and “Scholarship” sound very good. It’s even better when you realize that just by taking the PSAT in your junior year, you’ve already qualified!

Surely it can’t be that easy. The College Board estimates that more than 4.5 million high school juniors took the PSAT last year, but only 7,500 finalists were selected for the National Merit Scholarship. Less than a fifth of a percent.

How does a high school student become a semifinalist or finalist for the National Merit Scholarship? How does the selection process affect your chances of admission to top colleges? In addition to scholarships, does National Merit recognition offer any other benefits?

To learn how to qualify, how to understand the process, and how to maximize your chances of winning a National Merit Scholarship, read on.

Eligibility for National Merit Scholarships 2023

Let’s start at the beginning. For high school students, the National Merit Scholarship Program offers financial aid for college attendance. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) administers it.

A high score on the PSAT qualifies students for the National Merit program. This test is more formally known as the PSAT/NMSQT, or the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.
For the National Merit Scholarship, you must take the official PSAT/NMSQT, not an alternative like the PSAT 10.

The NMSC may designate high scorers as Commended Students, Semifinalists, or Finalists (after an additional application). Scholarship winners are selected from the Finalists.

National Merit Scholarship eligibility is based on three major factors:

  • In grades 9 through 12, students must take the PSAT/NMSQT in the specified year of the high school program. The test should generally be taken during junior year in the fall.
  • Two, students must be full-time high school students (traditional or homeschooled), be in good academic standing, and plan to enroll in college following high school graduation.
  • As a final requirement, students must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents of the United States attending high school in the United States, the District of Columbia, or U.S. commonwealth and territory.

The NMSC will determine students’ eligibility for the program based on a few factual questions at the beginning of the PSAT/NMSQT.

National Merit Scholars: How to Become One

In addition to receiving a National Merit Scholarship commendation or becoming a semifinalist or finalist, the PSAT/NMSQT isn’t the end of the process. The process has a few stages that are important to keep in mind:

Take the PSAT and get a great score!

The most important thing for juniors is to ace the PSAT/NMSQT. A student must score within the top 1% of their state to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship.
As a result, the score cutoff will vary based on where you live and how well others in your state performed on the PSAT. If you qualify for the semifinals, you’ll find out in September of your senior year.

You might be named either a Commended Student or a Semifinalist at this stage. You should include both of these on your college application. National Merit program commendations are given to fewer than 5% of test takers.

Make your application stand out

Congratulation on being named a National Merit Semifinalist! Become a Finalist by applying now.

 This scholarship application is crucial because only a small percentage of semifinalists make it to the finals and receive the award. Under “National Merit Semifinalists,” you can find more information about this.

Take the SAT and score well

You’re not done with your test-taking; National Merit Finalists are also high scorers on the SAT in addition to the PSAT. Your scholarship application will also require you to submit your official SAT scores.

As far as the SAT is concerned, neither the NMSC nor the College Board recommend a cutoff score, only that it should be “high enough to confirm your PSAT/NMSQT performance.” Therefore, if you score well on the PSAT, you must continue studying for the SAT, so that you can apply to become a Finalist if you advance to Semifinalist status.

Scholarship scores required for National Merit Scholarships

The NMSC calculates your overall score after you take the PSAT. PSAT scores are evaluated each year using selection index scores. Below are the cutoff scores for last year’s PSAT/NMSQT.

 To find out how competitive the National Merit Scholarship Competition will be in your area, find your state’s selection index score:

STATESELECTION INDEX SCORE
Alabama216
Alaska213
Arizona219
Arkansas214
California222
Colorado220
Connecticut221
Delaware220
DC223
Florida219
Georgia220
Hawaii219
Idaho215
Illinois221
Indiana218
Iowa215
Kansas218
Kentucky218
Louisiana215
Maine215
Maryland222
Massachusetts223
Michigan219
Minnesota219
Mississippi214
Missouri217
Montana214
Nebraska216
Nevada218
New Hampshire218
New Jersey223
New Mexico213
New York221
North Carolina219
North Dakota212
Ohio218
Oklahoma214
Oregon220
Pennsylvania220
Rhode Island218
South Carolina215
South Dakota214
Tennessee219
Texas221
Utah215
Vermont216
Virginia222
Washington222
West Virginia212
Wisconsin216
Wyoming212
Average Score218

In Wyoming or Iowa, you might qualify with a lower score, whereas in Massachusetts, New Jersey, or DC, a higher score is likely to be required. A score of 4-5 points above your state’s average cutoff score greatly increases your chances of becoming a Semifinalist.

Commended Students

In September of their senior year, high scorers on the PSAT/NMSQT may be named Commended Students by the NMSC.

About 35,000 students receive commended student status out of the top 3%-4% of PSAT scorers. In spite of this, these students did not receive high enough qualifying scores to be named a semifinalist this cycle, as semifinalists usually score in the top 1% of PSAT takers.

Students who score well on the PSAT do receive letters of commendation from the NMSC, in recognition of their significant academic achievement. Even though Commended Students are not eligible to compete for the official National Merit Scholarship, as semifinalists are, by being recognized in this way they often become candidates for scholarships offered by statewide agencies and corporations. Below, under “Special Scholarships,” you can read more about that.

Semifinalists for the National Merit Scholarship

The top 1% of PSAT test takers qualify as semifinalists, which is a significant accomplishment. About 16,000 high school students receive semifinalist status from the NMSC every year. Colleges and corporate sponsors offer special scholarships to students who become National Merit Semifinalists, even if they don’t reach the finals.

Semifinalists are also eligible to apply for scholarships to become National Merit Finalists. The application process is quite similar to that of applying to college. NMSC requires semifinalists to submit:

  • Transcripts from high school or other academic records
  • A letter of recommendation (usually from the principal of your high school)
  • You write a personal essay about an experience you’ve had or a challenge you’ve overcome

Get feedback on your materials, especially the essay, from a trusted source. The achievement of semifinalist status does not guarantee that you will become a National Merit Finalist. A good application shows the NMSC why you’re a great all-around candidate, not just a good student, for a merit scholarship.

Finalists

Finalists are notified in February of their senior year if they have been selected as National Merit Scholarship Finalists. Additionally, their high schools are notified, and their principals receive Certificates of Merit to present to the Finalists.

Winner Selection

Approximately 7,500 Scholars are selected from the remaining Finalists. National Merit scholarship winners receive one of three types of scholarships from March until the end of the school year. The NMSC awards some grants, while businesses, foundations, professional organizations, and colleges award others:

The National Merit Scholarship is worth $2,500. A committee of college admissions officers and high school counselors evaluates all Finalists. State governments award these one-time scholarships. Students are not considered for awards based on their finances, college preferences, planned courses of study, or career goals.


Merit Scholarships Sponsored by Corporations. A sponsor may award these awards to employees’ relatives, residents of the community where the business operates, or Finalists with majors and/or careers relevant to the sponsor. Some awards are renewable for all four years of college, while others are one-time.

Merit Scholarships Sponsored by Colleges. In the end, officials from each sponsor college select finalists who have (1) been admitted to that college and (2) informed NMSC that the school is their first choice. There is a four-year renewal period for these college-sponsored awards. You can report your first choice here by the deadline.

Special Scholarships

Around 1,000 National Merit program participants who do not become Finalists receive Special Scholarships from corporations and business organizations. An initial entry form must be submitted by students who meet the sponsor’s criteria. A scholarship application is then requested from high schools by NMSC. Later in the school year, the NMSC evaluates the candidates and awards them. Up to four years may be allowed for these awards if they are a one-time award or if they are renewable.

Final Thoughts

Among the many merit scholarships that students can win in the college application process, the National Merit Scholarship is among the most prestigious. Moreover, participating in the National Merit program offers additional benefits beyond the cachet of winning a National Merit Scholarship. You may be able to apply for Special Scholarships if you achieve the status of Commended Student or Semifinalist in your application.

Preparing for the PSAT/NMSQT is the best way to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. Try to get ahead of the curve as much as you can before junior year. Don’t write your finalist application alone if you become eligible after that! As with admission to selective universities, National Merit program participants are evaluated on more than just their academic performance. Your trusted partner can help guide you through the application process.

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