Taking the PSAT and Qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship Program

Here's some tips on taking the PSAT

Source: Flickr user symic

Every October, over 1.5 million students are taking the PSAT/NMSQT. The Preliminary SAT is also the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

Some key things to know about this test:

  • The PSAT/NMSQT tests critical reading, math and writing skills and has a maximum score of 240.
  • Students who score high enough could qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Competition and receive money for college.
  • Students sign up to take the test at their high school.
  • Home-schooled students should contact local schools well in advance (preferably as early as June) to make arrangements to take the test.

Qualifying for National Merit Scholarship Program

While any high school student can take the PSAT, students must meet specific requirements to be eligible to participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program.

  1. Students taking PSAT/NMSQT during their third year (junior year) of high school should be prepared. While sophomores can take the PSAT, they must retake the test during their junior year to be considered for the National Merit Scholarship Program.
  2. Students must be enrolled as a high school student (traditional or homeschooled), working towards graduation or high school completion, and plan to enroll in college full-time the fall after high school graduation.
  3. Students must be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident intending to become a U.S. citizen at their earliest opportunity.

Following the test, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) will use the PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index scores to determine the top 50,000 high-scoring test-takers for recognition. Typically the high-scorers will have at least a score of 200. However, qualifications levels vary year-to-year, as well as by state. Therefore, if it is an especially competitive year, or if you live in a more competitive state, the qualifying score will be higher. Students will learn if they are in the running for the National Merit Scholarship Competition in April following the test.

In September following the PSAT/NMSQT, the 50,000 high-scoring test-takers will receive notification from NMSC about their status in the competition. NMSC determines 34,000 students as Commended Students. They will receive a Letter of Commendation recognizing their academic promise, but also notified they will not be continuing in the competition for National Merit Scholarships.

Although they will not be awarded National Merit Scholarships, Commended Students may qualify for other scholarships provided by corporate and business sponsors of NMSC.

NMSC notifies the remaining 16,000 high-scorers as Semifinalists and gives a scholarship application and information on requirements to advance in the National Merit Scholarship Competition.

Semi-finalists will have approximately one month to submit the application and required documentation. Semifinalists must also take the SAT and have scores reported to NMSC by Dec. 31. SAT scores are used to confirm the earlier PSAT/NMSQT performance.

In February of the senior year, NMSC selects 15,000 finalists based on their academic abilities, skills, and accomplishments. Of the 15,000 Finalists, approximately 7,600 students will be notified as early as March that they are Merit Scholarship winners.

National Merit Scholarships

There are three types of National Merit Scholarships:

1. National Merit $2,500 Scholarship

A committee of college admissions officers and high school counselors select the winners. Finalists compete with other finalists in their own state. The number of scholarships per state is proportional to the state’s percentage of the country’s graduating high school seniors. Winners are selected based on their academic achievement and potential college success. The scholarship is not renewable.

2. Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarships

The professional staff of NMSC selects the winners of these scholarships. Eligibility for corporate-sponsored merit scholarships varies vastly among the hundreds of corporations, company foundations, and business sponsored scholarships. Some eligibility requirements include being a child of an employee, a resident of a specific community, or having a certain major or career plan. Scholarships range from $500 to $10,000 and some are renewable.

3. College-sponsored Merit Scholarships

Officials at the sponsoring college select these scholarships and typically notify winners in early May. Awards are renewable for four years and range from $500 to $2,000 per year.

All in all, this process can feel long and daunting–but it can pay off, big time!

Instead of taking the PSAT/NMSQT as a practice SAT test, prepare for the test and do your best. Although the National Merit Scholarship Competition is a very long process, it could potentially be worth a lot of scholarship money to help you pay for college.