National Merit Scholarship

National Merit Scholarship: Exploring how to become a National Merit Scholar!

The path to covering the cost of college can be confusing and stressful. Between navigating financial aid and applying for scholarships for college, there’s a lot to keep track of. We want to make the process of finding merit-based scholarships as straightforward as possible. 

If you’re reading this article, then you already know the National Merit Scholarship can be a great option for making the cost of college more affordable. But how do you become one of the National Merit Scholarship winners? 

In this guide to National Merit Scholarships, we’ll break down:

  • What is the National Merit Scholarship?
  • National Merit Scholarship requirements
  • What is a merit-based scholarship?
  • Starting your scholarship search to find other scholarships for college
  • Optimizing your odds of becoming a National Merit Scholar with your PSAT score
  • National Merit Scholarship colleges, and more

The National Merit Scholarship is a great starting place for your scholarship search. In fact, most students qualify for this scholarship without even realizing it. As such, it can be a great first step to looking for scholarships for college.

What is the National Merit Scholarship?

For starters: what is a National Merit Scholarship, and why is it different from other scholarships for college?

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic program that awards scholarships to high-achieving high school students across the nation. The National Merit Scholarship amount is $2,500 for each of the National Merit Scholarship winners. 

National Merit Scholarship requirements are based on a student’s PSAT/NMSQT. Students usually take this exam in their junior year of high school.

Each year, 1.5 million students enter the competition to become National Merit Scholars. Of these students, approximately 7,500 will receive National Merit Scholarships.

What is a merit-based scholarship?

You may have heard the phrases “merit scholarship” or “merit-based scholarships” tossed around as you begin your scholarship search. This begs the question: what is a merit-based scholarship?

Unlike need-based scholarships, which are awarded based on demonstrated financial need, merit-based scholarships are awarded based on talent or merit. They can be determined by academic merit—like high GPA—athletic merit, or any category where students have demonstrated excellence. On occasion, a merit scholarship will also take financial need into account, though this is less common.

The National Merit Scholarship is one such merit scholarship, awarded primarily based on PSAT scores. While the National Merit Scholarship is provided by a private, not-for-profit organization, many merit-based scholarships are given out by universities. 

These scholarships vary in size, from a few hundred dollars to the full cost of college tuition. Merit-based scholarships can greatly help to offset the cost of college. 

National merit scholarship winners

How do I get merit-based scholarships?

The National Merit Scholarship evaluates prospective National Merit Scholars via multiple elimination rounds. The first round is based solely on PSAT scores, with the highest scorers progressing to the next round of evaluation. A semi-finalist must then meet other academic requirements in order to advance to become a National Merit finalist. 

National Merit Scholarship requirements for finalists entail: 

  • Enrollment in the final year of high school, with plans to enroll full-time in college the following fall
  • Endorsement from your high school principal
  • A record of high academic performance
  • A completed National Merit Scholarship Application, including the submission of an essay
  • An SAT or ACT score demonstrating continued excellence

The National Merit Scholarship program provides more information about qualifying to become a National Merit Scholar here

This is one example of the evaluation process for merit-based scholarships for college. As you continue your scholarship search, you will see different processes unique to each merit scholarship. 

Each merit-based scholarship emphasizes distinct qualities in its applicants. For example, excellence at an instrument, mastery of an art form, or a high-achieving GPA. Each merit scholarship also involves its own set of requirements. Some selection processes involve essays and other application components while others do not. 

When you research scholarships for college, explore individual academic scholarship requirements, application requirements, and extracurricular requirements for each merit scholarship. This will give you the best odds of winning a merit-based scholarship and offsetting the cost of college. 

You can learn more about identifying and applying for a merit scholarship from this CollegeAdvisor webinar

How many National Merit Scholars are there?

If you’re hoping to become a National Merit Scholar, it’s important to know your odds. 

There are several evaluation rounds involved in the selection of National Merit Scholars. The first round is comprised of high school students who submit a PSAT score (and who satisfy the other National Merit Scholarship requirements) via the PSAT/NMSQT exam taken each fall. This usually amounts to approximately 1.5 million entrants submitting PSAT scores. 

After PSAT scores have been calculated, the 50,000 applicants with the highest PSAT scores will qualify for recognition. Of these 50,000 students, 34,000 earn the title of “Commended Student.” However, that means those students will not become National Merit Scholars. The other 16,000, selected as the highest scorers of each state, are semi-finalists for the National Merit Scholarship. 

Around 15,000 of the 16,000 semifinalists will earn the title of “National Merit finalist.” Semifinalists can become National Merit finalists by demonstrating ability, skill, and accomplishment throughout the other National Merit Scholarship requirements. 

A finalist chances of winning

Ultimately, a National Merit finalist has a 50% chance of being selected as a National Merit scholar. 7,500 finalists will become National Merit Scholars, receiving a National Merit Scholarship amount of $2,500 to help cover the cost of college. See the National Merit Scholarship’s FAQs for advice on progressing from being a National Merit finalist to one of the National Merit Scholarship winners.

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. 

While only a National Merit Scholar receives the National Merit Scholarship amount of $2,500, even earning the title of National Merit finalist can help you attain other scholarships for college. In fact, many colleges identify as National Merit Scholarship colleges and offer a variety of financial awards to both finalists and scholars. Some of these National Merit Scholarship colleges even grant a full ride to finalists. A full-ride covers the entire cost of college!

National Merit Scholarship

What qualifies you to be a National Merit Scholar?

There are multiple rounds of qualifications and eliminations that you must beat to become a National Merit scholar. 

In order to become a semi-finalist, the most important requirement is your PSAT score. The PSAT, taken in your junior year, is the primary component in determining your eligibility as a National Merit Scholar. It’s important to submit strong PSAT scores in order to progress to semi-finalist standing.

Your PSAT scores are evaluated relative to the scores of other entrants in a given year. For this reason, it is very difficult to give cutoffs as to what score you should aim for, as the cutoff will vary from year to year. In addition, you must be one of the top scorers in your state in order to become a semi-finalist. Due to the variable nature of National Merit Scholarships, we recommend simply optimizing your own PSAT score, rather than aiming for a particular PSAT score. 

Aside from your PSAT scores, the National Merit Scholarship winners must show strong overall academic performance, gain an endorsement from their high school principal, and demonstrate various other accomplishments throughout high school.

The National Merit scholarship committee also weighs the following factors for a National Merit finalist: 

  • The submission of a strong essay to the National Merit Scholarship application
  • An SAT or ACT score consistent with the applicant’s PSAT score

Finally, a successful National Merit Scholar will be enrolled in their final year of high school with plans to attend college the following fall.

Note that prior to achieving semifinalist status, only your PSAT score matters. Once you are a National Merit finalist, other factors—such as your GPA and accomplishments—become relevant factors in determining your eligibility.

Review more tips from U.S. News on submitting a strong application to become a National Merit Scholar.

How do you become a National Merit finalist?

National Merit Scholarships are a fantastic option for offsetting the cost of college. This is especially true considering most high school students already take the PSAT, which is the primary means of determining eligibility for this merit scholarship. As such, it is important to optimize your odds of becoming a National Merit finalist by doing well on the PSAT. 

So, the best way to boost your odds of becoming a National Merit Scholar is to maximize your PSAT score. Wondering how to excel at the PSAT?

Here are some of our top tips:

1. Start early

Standardized testing is a learned skill, and ample evidence suggests that studying for a standardized test is strongly correlated with higher scores. Therefore, the earlier you begin studying, and the more effort you put in, the more successful you will be. 

2. Practice for the PSAT

Familiarize yourself with the contents of the PSAT so that there are no surprises when you take the exam. You should also take advantage of the many practice tests available online. This will give you a sense of your base score, as well as where you have the most room for improvement.

3. Take the exam more than once

In order to be eligible for National Merit Scholarships, you must be in your junior year of high school when you take the PSAT. However, you can, and should, also take the PSAT in your sophomore year to get hands-on experience sitting for the exam. This will not impact your eligibility for the merit scholarship.

Putting in the time now will give you the best odds of becoming a National Merit finalist. And in case National Merit Scholarships aren’t motivation enough, the PSAT score is also a frequent factor amongst other academic scholarship requirements, so putting in the effort now can help you net several scholarships for college. 

Aside from the PSAT score, academic scholarship requirements for the National Merit Scholarship also include having a strong GPA. This matters less in the initial evaluation rounds, but if you hope to progress from being a National Merit finalist to a National Merit scholar, your grades will be a factor. Keep your grades high in order to optimize your chances both for this merit scholarship as well as other scholarships for college.

National Merit Scholarship

Merit-based scholarships for high school seniors

As you start the scholarship search, know that there are many more merit-based scholarships available to you outside of just National Merit Scholarships. There are also many resources available to you to inform your scholarship search. 

Organization-Sponsored Merit-Based Scholarships

Forbes provides a list of the most generous and prestigious merit-based scholarships and fellowships for high school seniors. This includes merit-based scholarships for students who:

  • Excel in STEM fields or writing
  • Volunteer or participate in public service
  • Demonstrate academic merit and financial need, and more.

This list is a helpful one to start your scholarship search with. There are also many other assorted merit-based scholarships, including the Doodle for Google merit-based scholarship hosted by Google that awards money to students for submitting doodles for display on Google’s home page.

CollegeAdvisor.com also provides a webinar for finding merit-based scholarships as a domestic student. 

Finally, note that if you qualify as a National Merit finalist but are not selected as a National Merit Scholar, you will still benefit from this merit-based scholarship indirectly. While you will not receive the National Merit Scholarship amount of $2,500, there are many National Merit Scholarship colleges that award aid if you are a National Merit finalist. 

The University of Maine, University of South Florida, University of Alabama, and University of Oklahoma are just a few of several National Merit Scholarship colleges that offer full-ride tuition to any National Merit finalist who is accepted. So, even if you are not a National Merit Scholar, the National Merit Scholarships can still lower your cost of college.

Institution-Sponsored Merit-Based Scholarships

Another option to include in your scholarship search is scholarships for college that are provided by the colleges themselves. USC, for example, offers a generous merit-based scholarship to students who submit their applications by an earlier deadline. USC merit-based scholarships are awarded to about 2% of early applicants and range in award amount from a quarter of tuition to full tuition coverage. 

Vanderbilt also offers a merit-based scholarship for applicants to its Ingram Scholars program, Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholarship program, and Chancellor’s Scholarship program, among other additional merit-based scholarships. Unlike USC, Vanderbilt’s merit-based scholarships each have their own application process with corresponding supplemental essays. For help writing these essays, see CollegeAdvisor’s Vanderbilt essay guide.

Note that unlike an organization’s merit-based scholarship, a college merit-based scholarship can only be used at the institution by which they are granted.

As you can see, there are dozens of merit-based scholarships to consider in your scholarship search. A merit-based scholarship is a great way to lower the cost of college, particularly for students who may not qualify for the amount of need-based aid that they require. 

National Merit Scholarship: Five tips for winning!

national merit scholarship finalist

Becoming a National Merit Scholar is a fantastic way of starting your scholarship search as you prepare to transition to college. In fact, the National Merit Scholarships are one of the lowest-effort scholarships for college, as most high schools organize a school-wide proctoring of the PSAT. As such, we recommend doing whatever you can to optimize your chances of becoming a National Merit finalist. 

Here are our best tips for meeting the academic scholarship requirements of the National Merit Scholarship:

1. Take practice tests for the PSAT

One of the absolute best ways of optimizing a standardized test score is to study for it ahead of time. Your PSAT score is no different. You can find several practice exams via CollegeBoard and other online resources. Take these practice exams seriously, putting in the time to examine your strengths and weaknesses so that you can prepare as efficiently as possible. This is the best thing you can do to boost your odds of becoming a National Merit Scholar.

2. Optimize your GPA

Your GPA is going to be one of the most important academic scholarship requirements as you apply for scholarships for college. National Merit Scholarships are no different: your GPA is less of a factor than the PSAT scores in the first evaluation round, but if you hope to progress from National Merit finalist to National Merit Scholar, your GPA must be strong. Achieve this by taking challenging classes throughout high school and learning efficient study habits so that you earn high marks. 

3.  Write a great essay

If you are a semifinalist, the National Merit Scholarship selection team will ask you to write a 600-650 word essay as part of the application to become a National Merit Scholar. Most years, the prompt for this essay is broad enough that students can write about almost anything. Spend time thinking about your topic, and ensure that you are putting your best foot forward. The essay should be well-written, free of any mistakes, and should engage the reader. Treat this essay as if you were writing a supplemental essay for a college.

4. Excel on the SAT or ACT

If you are a finalist for the National Merit Scholarship, your SAT or ACT scores will become an additional factor in weighing your application. It’s important to study just as hard for these exams as you did for the PSAT, if not harder. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation will be looking for evidence that you have continued or improved your academic excellence since sitting for the PSAT. There are many, many resources available online to optimize your SAT or ACT scores.

5.  Enrich your life in other areas

If you want to become a National Merit Scholar, you will have to show accomplishment both in and out of the classroom. This can consist of other awards, achievements, and extracurriculars that demonstrate your standing as a well-rounded, high-achieving student. In addition, having more experience in other areas of your life will give you more to write about in your essay. In fact, as you continue your scholarship search, you will see that many scholarships for college are looking not just for academic achievement but also for evidence of strong character and an interesting set of activities beyond the classroom.

National Merit Scholarship- Final Thoughts

As you can see, there are a lot of factors to consider as you pursue the National Merit Scholarship and other scholarships for college. 

We know the National Merit Scholarship amount might not cover the full price of your tuition, but each scholarship you earn takes some of the burden off of the cost of college. We hope this guide will help give you the best possible chance of becoming a National Merit Scholar, and we wish you the best of luck.

This article was written by Becky Weinstein. If you want to get help with your college applications from CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expertsregister with CollegeAdvisor.com today. Also, check out our other guides to Merit-Based Scholarships as you embark on your college application journey!