All about the National merit scholarships - Orientation

PSAT/NMSQT Prep with Practice Tests - Princeton Review 2021

All about the National merit scholarships

The NMSQT part of the name PSAT/NMSQT stands for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. That means that the PSAT serves as the test that will establish whether or not you are eligible for National Merit recognition. This chapter will help you figure out what that may mean for you and even other scholarships you may qualify for.


You might think that the PSAT is simply a warm-up for the SAT, but the National Merit Scholarship Program makes the PSAT an important test in its own right.

The mission of National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) is to recognize and honor the academically talented students of the United States. NMSC accomplishes this mission by conducting nationwide academic scholarship programs. The enduring goals of NMSC’s scholarship programs are the following:

·  to promote a wider and deeper respect for learning in general and for exceptionally talented individuals in particular

·  to shine a spotlight on brilliant students and encourage the pursuit of academic excellence at all levels of education

·  to stimulate increased support from organizations that wish to sponsor scholarships for outstanding scholastic talent

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic competition for recognition and scholarships that began in 1955. High school students enter the National Merit Program by taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) and by meeting published program entry and participation requirements.


To participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program, a student must:

1.  take the PSAT/NMSQT in the specified year of the high school program and no later than the third year in grades 9 through 12, regardless of grade classification or educational pattern;

2.  be enrolled as a high school student (traditional or homeschooled), progressing normally toward graduation or completion of high school, and planning to enroll full time in college no later than the fall following completion of high school; and

3.  be a citizen of the United States; or be a U.S. lawful permanent resident (or have applied for permanent residence, the application for which has not been denied) and intend to become a U.S. citizen at the earliest opportunity allowed by law.

The Index

How does your PSAT score qualify you for National Merit? The National Merit Scholarship Corporation uses a selection index, which is the sum of your Reading, Writing and Language, and Math Test scores that are each on a scale of 8—38. Those three test scores are added together and then multiplied by 2 to calculate your Selection Index score that has a range of 48—228. Qualifying scores for National Merit recognition will vary from state to state, so check with your school counselor as to what the cutoff score is that year for your particular state. For instance, if your PSAT scores were 24 Math, 22 Reading, and 30 Writing and Language, your index would be 152.

National Merit Selection Index

76 × 2 = 152

The Awards and the Process

In the fall of their senior year, about 50,000 students will receive one of two letters from NMSC (National Merit Scholarship Corporation): either a Letter of Commendation or a letter stating that they have qualified as semifinalists for National Merit.

Commended Students Roughly two-thirds of these students (about 34,000 total students each year) will receive a Letter of Commendation by virtue of their high scores on the test. This looks great on your college application, so if you have a reasonable chance of getting one, it’s definitely worth your time to prepare for the PSAT. Make no mistake, though, these letters are not easy to get. They are awarded to students who score between the 95th and the mid-99th percentiles—that means to the top four to five percent in the country.

If you receive this honorable mention from NMSC, you should be extremely proud of yourself. Even though you won’t continue in the process for National Merit scholarships, this commendation does make you eligible for special scholarships sponsored by certain companies and organizations, which vary in their amounts and eligibility requirements.

Semifinalists The other third of these students—those 16,000 students who score in the upper 99th percentile in their states—will be notified that they are National Merit semifinalists. If you qualify, you’ll get a letter announcing your status as a semifinalist, along with information about the requirements for qualification as a finalist. These include maintaining high grades, performing well on your SAT, and getting an endorsement from your principal.

Becoming a National Merit semifinalist is quite impressive, and if you manage it, you should certainly mention it on your college applications.

What does “scoring in the upper 99th percentile in the state” mean? It means that you’re essentially competing against the other people in your state for those semifinalist positions. Since some states have higher average scores than others, this means that if you’re in states like New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, or Massachusetts, you need a higher score to qualify than if you live in other states.

Finalists The majority of semifinalists (more than 90 percent) go on to qualify as finalists. Students who meet all of the eligibility requirements will be notified in February of their senior year that they have qualified as finalists. This means that they are now eligible for scholarship money, though it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll get any. In fact, only about half of National Merit finalists actually win scholarships through NMSC. What determines whether a student gets money or not? There is a final screening process, based on criteria that NMSC doesn’t release to the public, to determine who actually gets these scholarships. 2,500 finalists earn $2,500 one-time scholarships from NMSC, and approximately 1,000 more win corporate-sponsored merit scholarships, which are typically given to children of the sponsors’ employees, residents of certain communities, and students who plan to study or work in specific fields. The monetary amount of corporate-sponsored scholarships can be anywhere from $500—$10,000, and some are one-time scholarships while others are given for each year of study. Some students who meet the corporation’s qualifications but aren’t finalists will also earn Special Scholarships. Approximately an additional 4,000 students will be offered college-sponsored scholarships from the schools they plan to attend. These awards range from $500 to $2,000 and are renewable for four years.

Though the amounts of money may not be huge, every little bit helps. One other point to keep in mind is that while most of the scholarships through NMSC are relatively small, many universities seek out National Merit finalists because of their academic abilities and (who are we kidding?) because the universities like to brag about how many such students chose them. For this reason, a number of state schools and less elite universities offer significant scholarships to National Merit finalists and sometimes semifinalists as well. Some schools offer full tuition for National Merit finalists, including the University of Alabama, University of Central Florida, University of Kentucky, University of Mississippi, Washington State University, Baylor University, and quite a few others. Many more schools award incomplete but large scholarships to National Merit finalists and semifinalists.

Aside from the possibility of winning a scholarship, the award itself looks great in your portfolio. So if you think you are in contention for National Merit recognition, practice diligently and smartly! If not, don’t sweat it too much, but prepare for the PSAT anyway because it is good practice for the SAT.

If you’re willing to forego the name-brand recognition of an Ivy, a state school can be an excellent choice—and if it offers you a National Merit scholarship, the trade-off can be more than worth it. Check out our megaguide, The Complete Book of Colleges, for well-researched profiles of over 1,000 public and private schools.

But I’m Not a Junior in High School Yet…

If you are not yet a junior, and you’re interested in National Merit, you will have to take the test again your junior year in order to qualify.

A certain number of schools give the PSAT to students in their sophomore year—and sometimes even earlier. These schools hope that earlier exposure to these tests will help their students perform better in later years. If you’re not yet in your junior year, the PSAT won’t count for National Merit scholarship purposes, so it’s really just a trial run for you. It’s still a good idea to go into the test prepared in order to feel and perform your best. After all, there’s nothing more unpleasant than an unpleasant testing experience, except maybe having a tooth drilled or watching the sad downward spiral of certain pop stars.

What If I’m in a Three-Year or Other Nonstandard Course of Study?

If you’re going to spend only three years in secondary school, you have two options for when to take the PSAT for National Merit purposes: you can take it either in your next-to-last year or in your last year of secondary school. However, our advice is this: if you’re in any program other than a usual four-year high school, be sure to talk to your school counselor. He or she will consult with NMSC and help ensure that you take the PSAT at the right time. This is important, because not taking the PSAT at the right time can disqualify you from National Merit recognition.

What If I Miss the PSAT Administration My Junior Year?

If you aren’t concerned about National Merit scholarships, there’s no reason to do anything in particular—except, perhaps, to obtain a few PSAT booklets to practice with, just to see what fun you missed.

However, if you want to be eligible for National Merit recognition, then swift action on your part is required. If an emergency arises that prevents you from taking the PSAT, you should write to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation immediately to request alternate testing dates. If your request is received soon enough, it should be able to accommodate you. (NMSC says that this kind of request must absolutely be received by April 1 following the missed PSAT administration.) You’ll also need a signature from a school official.

For More Information

If you have any questions or problems, the best person to consult is your school counselor, who can help make sure you’re on the right track. If you need further help, contact your local Princeton Review office at 800-2-REVIEW or Or, you can contact National Merit directly:

National Merit Scholarship Corporation

1560 Sherman Avenue, Suite 200

Evanston, IL 60201-4897

(847) 866-5100


In addition to the National Merit Scholarships, you can also apply to College Board’s new Opportunity Scholarships and their partner scholarships. If you opt in the free Student Search Service® when you take the PSAT/NMSQT, the College Board will further connect you to scholarship partners who offer over $300 million annually in scholarships to qualifying students!

College Board Opportunity Scholarships

Beginning with the 2020 class, the College Board is offering a new scholarship program with $5 million scholarships each year to qualifying high school juniors in the United States, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories. The program consists of six different scholarships designed to help students divide the process of applying to college from start to finish. Completing each step gives students the opportunity to earn a certain amount of scholarship money, and students who complete all the steps are finally eligible for a $40,000 scholarship. The six-step scholarships are:

1.  Build Your College List: $500

2.  Practice for the SAT: $1,000

3.  Improve Your Score: $2,000

4.  Strengthen Your College List: $500

5.  Complete the FAFSA: $1,000

6.  Apply to Colleges: $1,000

For information regarding the official rules on how to qualify for each scholarship and deadlines, visit the College Board’s Opportunity Scholarships website:

Other Partner Scholarships

Hispanic Scholarship Fund

When to apply: accepting applications for class of 2022 in January 2021—February 2021

United Negro College Fund (UNCF)

When to apply: Anytime

American Indian Graduate Center

When to apply: Anytime

Asian Pacific Islander American Scholars

When to apply: September 2020—January 2021

Children of Fallen Patriots

When to apply: Anytime

For more partner scholarship programs, please visit: