How To Qualify As A National Merit Scholar

How do you qualify as a national merit scholar? Take the PSAT

Source: Flickr user Ryan McGilchrist

If you’re like many college hopefuls, you’re looking for any possible source of scholarship money to help you fund your higher education. In your search, you may have heard of a program called the National Merit Scholarship–you may have even taken the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test! But what exactly is the National Merit Scholarship, and how does one qualify to be a National Merit Scholar?

Basics on the program

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an annual scholarship competition carried out by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). Each Fall, 1.5 million high school students (mostly juniors) enter the competition by taking the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test or NMSQT. Of these, about 7,400 winners are chosen based on test scores and other criteria for one of three kinds of scholarships.

The test

You may know the NMSQT as the PSAT. They’re the same test–except the National Merit qualifying version is only offered in the fall, while the PSAT is also offered in the spring. You’ll take the test in late October or early November of your junior year. Your school will handle your registration, but it may be your responsibility to let your school counselor know you’re interested.

Like the SAT, the PSAT/NMSQT was revamped in 2015. The new test takes just under three hours, and includes reading, math, and writing/language sections intended to test your college readiness. Also similar to the new SAT, the PSAT/NMSQT no longer penalizes test takers for guessing. So it’s in your favor to answer every question.

The process of becoming a National Merit Scholar

After taking the PSAT/NMSQT, you’ll likely get your scores sometime before you go on winter break. Along with your raw scores, you’ll get a percentile ranking so you know how your performance compares to other students in your state and the nation as a whole. Your standing among students in your state is how the NMSC decides if you’ll be recognized. You’ll want to place as close to the 100th percentile as possible to maximize your chances of being recognized.

You can expect silence from the NMSC until the September after you take the PSAT/NMSQT, when approximately 50,000 high-scoring students are notified through their schools that they’re being recognized by the NMSC.

About two-thirds of these students will receive commendation letters but won’t be able to move on in the competition (they may still be eligible for certain prizes, though!). Commendations from the NMSC, while not monetary awards, still look great on college applications.

The remainder of recognized students are eligible to compete to become “finalists.” In addition to PSAT/NMSQT scores, the selection committee takes into account past high school academic performance, SAT scores, an application, letters of recommendation from school officials, and a personal statement. If you’re selected as a semi-finalist, NMSC will give you instructions on completing your application.

Scholarships and awards

Out of about 15,000 finalists, 7,400 will be awarded National Merit Scholarships. There are three types of these prizes. Perhaps the most well-known prize is the National Merit Scholarship itself–a one time scholarship payment worth $2,500 toward the cost of college.

In addition to this award from the NMSC, some students will be selected for corporate-sponsored scholarships of varying amounts. These awards may have different requirements than the National Merit Scholarship. For instance, certain corporations may award children of their employees. Others may give scholarships to students intending to go into specific fields of study, and so on.

Additionally, some colleges partner with the NMSC. If you qualify as a finalist and have designated a partner college as your first choice and have been accepted there, you could be selected by the college to win a school-sponsored award. Often, these are recurring payments, and in some cases may cover the majority of your college cost.

Some 1,200 promising test takers who did not make the “finalist” cut will be selected by the NMSC to receive Special Scholarships. These awards are also corporately-sponsored, and students go through a separate application process.

So if you’re looking for help paying for college, consider taking the PSAT/NMSQT as an investment. Not only will you gain valuable practice for future standardized tests, you could qualify to compete as a National Merit Scholar.

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