What is the National Merit Scholarship?

Posted - July 7, 2023

What is the National Merit Scholarship?

Taking the PSAT/NMSQT and winning a National Merit Scholarship can give your child a wealth of opportunities. Not only are they eligible for the program's $2,500 scholarship, but they can also access many full-ride, full-tuition, and other scholarships.

Plus, they will be in the top 1% of graduating seniors – college admissions gold! As a National Merit Scholar, your child will be well-positioned for selective college admissions and debt-free education.

The National Merit Scholarship Program is a renowned academic contest that honors and compensates meritorious high schoolers. This scholarship program, administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), opens doors to numerous opportunities for deserving students.

This post will explore the requirements and benefits of being a National Merit Scholar and details on how to qualify for the scholarship program. We'll discuss various types of scholarships offered under this program, including corporate and college-sponsored merit scholarships.

We will also guide you through the application process, share insights on becoming a semifinalist, and provide valuable tips on achieving qualifying PSAT scores. Prepare yourself for an in-depth understanding of this esteemed scholarship opportunity.

What is a National Merit Scholarship? 

The National Merit Scholarship program is a very prestigious academic competition held annually. It's open to high school juniors who score high on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) exam. About 15,000 students are selected as finalists each year, and about 7,500 are designated National Merit Scholars. Students who are designated National Merit Scholars will receive the $2,500 scholarship from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). 

This scholarship program was founded in 1955 amidst concerns that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union's scientific achievements. The program is administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

What is a National Merit Scholar?

A National Merit Scholar is a student recognized and awarded a scholarship through the National Merit Scholarship Program (NMSP). The NMSP is an academic competition in the United States that aims to identify and honor high-achieving students and provide them with financial support for their college education. To become a National Merit Scholar, students must undergo a multi-step selection process. It begins with taking the PSAT/NMSQT during their junior year of high school.

Based on their performance on this test, students may be designated as Commended Students or Semifinalists. Semifinalists are students who score above a specific cutoff determined annually by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) for each state. They are recognized for their exceptional academic abilities.

To advance to the Finalist stage, Semifinalists must meet additional requirements, including maintaining a solid academic record, receiving a recommendation from a high school official, submitting an application with an essay, and confirming their PSAT scores.

From the pool of Finalists, a select number of students are chosen as National Merit Scholars. These scholars receive prestigious scholarships funded by corporate sponsors, colleges, and universities. The scholarships awarded can vary in amount and benefits, covering a range of expenses such as tuition, fees, room, board, books, and sometimes additional allowances.

Being named a National Merit Scholar is a significant achievement recognizing a student's academic excellence, intellectual potential, and dedication to their education. It provides financial support for college, carries prestige, and can open doors to additional educational and career opportunities.

How to Become a National Merit Scholar?

Want to be a National Merit Scholar? Here's what you need to do:

- Score High on the PSAT

The PSAT/NMSQT is the first step to becoming a National Merit Scholar. Aim for a high score by practicing, hiring a tutor, or cultivating good study habits.

- Be in the Top 1%

Reach for the top 1% of test-takers in your state by striving to maintain academic excellence. Remember, each state has a unique cutoff for PSAT scores. These scores could change from year to year.

- Maintain Academic Excellence

Maintaining a high GPA and consistently demonstrating academic excellence is essential for becoming a finalist and being eligible for scholarship opportunities.

Types of National Merit Scholarships

The National Merit Scholarship Program rewards half of the finalists, around 7,500 students, with scholarships which can help reduce college costs. While the scholarship awarded to about half of the finalists is only $2,500, being a finalist can open many doors to other scholarships when your child applies to college, which helps make higher education more accessible.

National Merit Scholars can receive scholarships from three sources: 

  1. National Merit Scholarship: $2,500
  2. Corporate-sponsored Special Scholarships: one-time payment of $2,500 - $5,000; or renewable scholarships ranging from $1,000 - $10,000 per year. These scholarships are open to other students who participated in the competition but did not become finalists.
  3. College-sponsored Merit Scholarships: Varies by college from full-ride to a few thousand dollars. Students must list the college as their first choice on the NMSC application. 

Over 150 colleges and universities sponsor National Merit Scholarships for finalists who have been admitted and have informed NMSC by May 31 that the sponsoring college is their first choice. The scholarships can range from full-ride to partial funding, depending on individual university policies. For example, the University of North Texas offers a full-ride scholarship to National Merit Finalists. In contrast, Faulkner University offers a full-tuition scholarship. 

The truth is National Merit Scholars and Finalists will be able to get the most gift aid (merit and/or need-based). They are, after all, some of the top students in the country and will be coveted by most colleges. 

How to Score a National Merit Scholarship?

Winning a National Merit Scholarship is a challenge yet attainable.

The Application Process

First, your child must take the PSAT/NMSQT in their junior year of high school. This test measures critical reading, math, and writing skills and serves as an initial screen of program entrants.

Then, if your child scores high and meets other requirements, they may become a Semifinalist. Most Semifinalists are notified through their schools that they have advanced to Finalist standing within the competition by February of their senior year.

Filling Out the Application Form

Semifinalists must complete an online scholarship application, providing information about their academic record, participation in school and community activities, leadership abilities, employment history, and honors received at state or national levels.

Endorsement From School Head and Essay Submission

Semifinalists also need an endorsement from their school head and submit an essay describing events that influenced them or subjects that interest them.

How to Improve Your PSAT Scores: 3 Steps You Can Take

To get that high score on the PSAT/NMSQT exam, students should try these tips:

  1. Prepare Early: Start preparing early, ideally during sophomore year or earlier.
  2. Practice Tests: Take multiple practice tests to get familiar with the format and content. This will reduce anxiety and show you where you need to improve. Khan Academy offers free practice tests, so take advantage of them.
  3. Tutor Time: Consider getting a tutor or taking a PSAT prep course. They can give you personalized strategies to improve weak areas and boost your score.
  4. Better Study Habits: Regular study sessions, breaking up studying into manageable chunks, and focusing on understanding concepts instead of memorizing facts can all help improve your score over time.

Remember, becoming a National Merit Scholar takes work. But with hard work and dedication, anything is possible. 

FAQs about National Merit Scholarship

How many students get a National Merit Scholarship?

The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) typically designates around 7,500 students as National Merit Scholars. These scholars are selected from a pool of Finalists who have demonstrated exceptional academic achievements and met all the requirements of the program.

Do colleges care about National Merit Scholars?

Yes, many colleges value the distinction of being a National Merit Scholar. Students can win full-ride or full-tuition scholarships.

How hard is it to win a National Merit Scholarship?

The competition is intense as only top-scoring students on the PSAT qualify for this prestigious scholarship.

How to write an essay for National Merit Scholarship?

Your essay should highlight your achievements, goals, and how you plan to contribute positively to society. 


To win a National Merit Scholarship, you must put in the hard work and time to ace the PSAT/NMSQT. However, your hard work will pay off with the recognition and scholarship money you could receive.

Becoming a National Merit Scholar shows colleges that you are serious about your studies and have what it takes to succeed. It recognizes your child's outstanding academic performance and commitment. It can put your child in a position to graduate debt-free. 

Want to learn the tips, tricks and strategies to win scholarships?

Subscribe below to receive our free Scholarship Essay Guide

The form is loading


and learn how to find and win scholarships.

The form is loading