What is the National Merit Scholarship?

Last updated on - September 26, 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 qualify for many full-ride, full-tuition, and other big 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 highly sought after academic competition that recognizes and supports outstanding high school students. Managed by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), this program opens doors to many opportunities for 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.

Additionally, we will 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 look at this prestigious 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:

1. Score High on the PSAT

The PSAT/NMSQT is the first thing you need to do to become a National Merit Scholar. Try to get a high score by practicing, getting help from a tutor, and developing good study habits.

2. Be in the Top 1%

Aim to be among the top 1% of test-takers in your state by working hard to maintain excellent academic record. Keep in mind that each state has its own minimum score requirement for the PSAT. These requirements can change from year to year.

3. Maintain Academic Excellence

To become a finalist and be eligible for scholarships, it is important to keep a high grade point average (GPA) and consistently show outstanding academic performance.

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 amount 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 affordable.

National Merit Scholars can receive money from three sources: 

  1. National Merit Scholarship: $2,500
  2. Corporate-sponsored Special Scholarships: a single 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 were not selected as 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 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 possible. Here are the steps to take.

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.

Afterward, if your child gets a high score and meets other requirements, they might become a Semifinalist. Usually, schools inform Semifinalists by February of their senior year that they have moved on to the Finalist stage in the competition.

Filling Out the Application Form

Semifinalists need to fill out an application online. They have to share details about their school grades, ilist activities at school and in the community, leadership skills, past jobs, and any awards they have earned in their state or on a national level.

Endorsement From School Head and Essay Submission

Semifinalists also need their high school principal's endorsement. The student must also write an essay that incl events that have had an impact on them or subjects they find interesting.

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 help you improve weak areas and boost your score.
  4. Better Study Habits: Regular study sessions, breaking up studying into small 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?

Around 7,500 students are named National Merit Scholars every year. These students are chosen 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, colleges generally value and recognize the academic achievement of National Merit Scholars. Being a National Merit Scholar can enhance your college applications and increase your chances of winning scholarships or getting into some of the top colleges in the country.

How hard is it to win a National Merit Scholarship?

Winning a National Merit Scholarship can be difficult, as it requires a high level of academic achievement compared to other students across the country and in your state. However, with hard work, and a strong academic record, it is possible to increase your chances of winning this award.

How to write an essay for National Merit Scholarship?

To write an essay for the National Merit Scholarship, start by brainstorming ideas and thinking about experiences that have changed you in some way. Then, structure your essay with an introduction, body paragraphs that support your main points, and a strong conclusion that summarizes your thoughts.


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 can put your child in a position to attend a top college without having to take on too many loans.

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