How to Win a National Merit Scholarship
The National Merit Scholarship Program is one of the most prestigious scholarships for high school students
The National Merit Scholarship Program 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.
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 Scholarships can win one of three awards types:
- National Merit Scholarship. This $2,500 scholarship is open to all students, regardless of financial need, college choice, or major.
- College-sponsored National Merit Scholarship. Students who are National Merit Finalists are asked to nominate a college or university as their first choice. Some colleges award scholarship funding for renewable scholarships.
- 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 by performing well on the PSAT (specifically during a student’s 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 is determined 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 students who fall just outside the top 1% will be named “National Merit Commended” students.
Step 3: Complete your application
If you are in the top 1% of the PSAT test takers, you will be named a PSAT Semifinalist during the September of your senior year! The National Merit Scholarship application requires a high school transcript, recommendation, and an essay. After Semifinalsts 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.