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How to Win a National Merit Scholarship

By Will Geiger

Will Geiger is the co-founder of Scholarships360 and has a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. He is a former Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Kenyon College where he personally reviewed 10,000 admissions applications and essays. Will also managed the Kenyon College merit scholarship program and served on the financial aid appeals committee. He has also worked as an Associate Director of College Counseling at a high school in New Haven, Connecticut. Will earned his master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania and received his undergraduate degree in history from Wake Forest University.

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and Cait Williams

Cait Williams is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cait recently graduated from Ohio University with a degree in Journalism and Strategic Communications. During her time at OU, was active in the outdoor recreation community.

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Reviewed by Caitlyn Cole

Caitlyn Cole is a college access professional with a decade of experience in non-profit program and project management for college readiness and access organizations.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: February 6th, 2024
How to Win a National Merit Scholarship

The National Merit Scholarship Program (NSMP) is a scholarship competition run by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. This is a tough scholarship to win since there are only 7,500 winners out of the 4,000,000+ students who take the PSAT each year.

While the size of the award isn’t as generous as other programs you’ll find in your quest to find and win scholarships, it’s worth educating yourself on this award for one huge, added benefit: being a National Merit Scholar can provide a powerful boost to your college application.

Keep on reading to learn more about how much money you might receive from the NMSP and how to apply and win the scholarship!

Related: How to win the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program

How much money does the National Merit Scholarship pay?

Before diving into how to win a National Merit Scholarship, let’s look at the sizes of this award. Students who win a National Merit Scholarship can win one of three awards:

  1. National Merit Scholarship. This one-time $2,500 scholarship is open to all students, regardless of financial need, college choice, or major.
  2. College-sponsored National Merit Scholarship. Students who are National Merit Finalists will nominate a college or university as their first choice. Some colleges award scholarship funding for renewable scholarships.
  3. Corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarship. Many corporations will offer awards for children of their employees, residents of locations where the company operates, or for Finalists who have career interests aligned with the corporation. These scholarships can either be one-time awards or renewable for four years of college.

How do you win a National Merit Scholarship?

Winning a National Merit Scholarship is a simple process that largely depends on your performance on standardized testing.

Step 1: Take the PSAT

The first step to winning a National Merit Scholarship is to do well on the PSAT. You’ll have to get a good PSAT score during your junior year of high school). Specifically, you need to score within the top 1% of students. The good news about the PSAT is that it otherwise does not “count” in the admissions process and is not something that you will need to submit to colleges (you will submit the ACT or SAT instead). 

To maximize your PSAT, it is helpful to take a practice test beforehand. The Khan Academy, through a partnership with the College Board (which administers the PSAT and SAT) offers some great free resources.

Step 2: Receive a qualifying score in your state

There is not a national qualifying score you need to receive. Instead, the cutoff score varies on a state-by-state basis. While you can look up state cutoffs from previous years, the official state cutoffs are not determined until after students have taken the tests. Note that if you fall just outside the top 1%, the board will name you as a “National Merit Commended” student.

Step 3: Complete your application

If you are in the top 1% of PSAT scores, you will qualify as a PSAT Semifinalist during September of your senior year! The application requires a high school transcript, recommendation, and an essay. After Semifinalists submit their application, roughly 15,000 will be chosen as finalists. This is the pool of students that the winners are chosen from. 

Step 4: Take the SAT 

If this wasn’t enough, you will need to take the SAT during your senior year to verify or confirm your PSAT score. There is not a specific cutoff for this step in the process, but the general idea is that your score should show that your PSAT was not a fluke.

Related: When should you take the SAT or ACT?

Next Steps

Next Steps

Next Steps

Frequently asked questions about how to win the National Merit Scholarship

What PSAT score gets you a National Merit Scholarship?

To be a potential National Merit Scholar, you’ll need to score in the top one percent of test takers in your state. This means that the score you need will change slightly each year depending on how well those around you do on the PSAT. Ask your guidance counselor or other school faculty about what previous scores have landed in the top one percent. From there, you can create a goal for yourself and a plan for how to study.

What GPA do you need for the National Merit Scholarship?

A 3.5 GPA or higher is needed in order to be a National Merit Scholar. The awarding scholarship committee wants to see that your PSAT score was not just a fluke and your GPA is confirmation of that. Your GPA will show how well you have done in school each semester and that you consistently care about your academics.

Do colleges care if you’re a National Merit semifinalist?

While being a National Merit semifinalist might be a nice thing to add to your achievements, it is not something that will necessarily get you into a college for sure. Colleges are more interested in your actual SAT or ACT score than they are your PSAT score. Again, don’t discount this accomplishment, but also don’t bank on it being what gets you into a school.

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