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Steps To Apply for The National Merit Scholarship Program

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Steps To Apply for The National Merit Scholarship Program

The National Merit Scholarship Program, established in 1955, is an esteemed academic competition that grants scholarships to students who demonstrate exceptional academic performance. Annually, approximately 1.5 million high school students participate in this prestigious program.

How to Enter the Competition

As a high school student, you can enter the National Merit Scholarship Program by meeting the program’s entry and participation requirements and taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT®) during your junior year. Each year’s PSAT/NMSQT is the designated qualifying test for that year’s competition. For example, the 2021 PSAT/NMSQT is the qualifying test for scholarships that will be awarded in 2023, while the 2022 PSAT/NMSQT is the qualifying test for scholarships that will be awarded in 2024.

To take the PSAT/NMSQT test in the fall, high school students should contact their counselor at the start of the school year. Registration is done by the high school and not by individual students.

Note:  Only the PSAT/NMSQT exam is eligible for entry into the National Merit Scholarship Program. The PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9 are not accepted for consideration.

Student Entry Requirements

During the National Merit Scholarship Program’s test day, students will be asked a series of questions to evaluate their eligibility. To qualify for the program, a student must meet certain requirements.

  1. It is required for students to take the PSAT/NMSQT during their high school program, no later than their third year in grades 9 through 12, regardless of their grade classification or educational pattern.
  2. You must be a high school student, either attending traditional school or being homeschooled, and must be on track to graduate or complete high school. Additionally, you should plan to accept college admission no later than the fall following your high school completion.
  3. To be eligible, you must either attend high school in the United States, the District of Columbia, or a U.S. commonwealth and territory or meet the citizenship requirements for students attending high school outside the United States.

Students attending high school outside the U.S: For a student attending high school outside of the United States to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program, they must either be a citizen of the United States or a lawful resident (or have applied for permanent residence and not had their application denied) to become a U.S. citizen as soon as legally possible.

When to Take the PSAT/NMSQT

  1. If students plan to complete the typical four years of high school (grades 9 through 12) before starting college full-time, they need to take the PSAT/NMSQT during their third year (also known as junior year, grade 11). By doing so, they can participate in the competition that concludes when awards are granted in the spring of their fourth year of high school (also known as senior year, grade 12), which is the same year they will finish high school and transition to college.
  2. While some schools suggest that sophomores take the PSAT/NMSQT for guidance, students must retake the exam in their junior year to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program if they plan to complete the standard four-year high school curriculum.
  3. If students wish to leave high school a year or more early to attend college full-time, they may still be able to participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program. To be eligible, they must take the PSAT/NMSQT before they graduate high school in either their second-to-last or last year of enrollment.
  • Students who take the PSAT/NMSQT exam in their second-to-last year of high school will be eligible to compete for awards that will be offered upon completion of their final year of high school.
  • Students who take the PSAT/NMSQT in their final year of high school will be eligible to compete for awards during their first year of college.
  1. To qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program, students who are enrolled in both high school and college must take the PSAT/NMSQT during their junior year (11th grade). The high school is responsible for verifying a student’s dual enrollment status and confirming that they are still considered a high school student.
  2. If students plan to spend five years in high school before attending college full-time, they can take part in the National Merit Scholarship Program. To be eligible, they need to take the PSAT/NMSQT during their third and fourth year of high school. However, their Selection Index scores won’t be considered until they make a formal request to enter the competition, which needs to be approved by NMSC®. The request should include the student’s name, high school name, and location, the year they started high school, the year they will graduate, and a brief explanation of their educational pattern.

To determine the expected level of recognition, NMSC will use the student’s Selection Index score from the PSAT/NMSQT taken in their third year of high school. If the student wants to be recognized in their final year of high school, they must take the PSAT/NMSQT again in their fourth year and earn a qualifying Selection Index score that matches or exceeds the score achieved on the third-year test. It’s important to note that the level of recognition a student receives cannot exceed the level earned on the qualifying test taken during their third year of high school, as that is the year in which all other competitors are considered.

It’s important to note that a student can only participate in one competition year and be considered for a scholarship. The year in which they take the PSAT/NMSQT to enter the competition is crucial. If there are any questions or concerns about a student’s eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship Program due to their educational plans not fitting the given descriptions, or for any other reason, it’s recommended to contact NMSC immediately.

If a Student Misses the PSAT/NMSQT Administration

A student that is unable to take the PSAT/NMSQT due to illness, an emergency, or other unforeseen circumstances but still meets the requirements for the NMSC program, may still have a chance to enter the competition. In such cases, either the student or a school official must write to NMSC immediately after the PSAT/NMSQT administration to inquire about the alternate entry procedures for the National Merit Scholarship Program. To be considered, the request must be postmarked no later than April.

If a student missed the PSAT/NMSQT administration, an alternate entry request is required. The request should include the student’s name and address, the contact information of the person making the request, the high school’s name and address, and a brief explanation of why the student missed the PSAT/NMSQT.

To increase their chances of meeting alternate entry requirements, students should send a written request to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) as early as possible. Upon receipt and processing of the request, NMSC will provide the student with alternate entry materials. These materials include detailed instructions for program entry and a form that must be signed by a school official. It is important to follow these instructions carefully and ensure that the form is completed accurately to avoid any potential delays in the application process.

PSAT/NMSQT Scores Are Sent to NMSC

As a co-sponsor of the test, NMSC receives all PSAT/NMSQT scores, along with certain information provided by students on their answer sheets. The Score Reports provided to test takers and their schools display a student’s Selection Index score, which is calculated by doubling the sum of their Reading, Writing Language, and Math Test scores. Additionally, the report indicates whether the student meets NMSC program entry requirements. If an asterisk (*) appears next to the Selection Index score, it means the student’s scores will not be used for entry. If any errors or changes in reported information could affect participation, school officials or students should immediately notify NMSC. The Selection Index scores of students who meet entry requirements are used to recognize high scorers.

Program Recognition

According to the PSAT/NMSQT® Selection Index, which is determined by doubling the combined scores of the Reading, Writing Language, and Math Tests, approximately 50,000 individuals from a pool of 1.5 million participants are eligible for recognition in the National Merit Scholarship Program. These top performers will receive notification from their respective schools in September regarding their status as either Commended Students or Semifinalists. This highly esteemed recognition serves as a testament to the dedication and hard work of these exceptional students.

Commended Students

During the month of September, approximately 34,000 students who obtained high scores out of the 50,000 individuals who took the PSAT/NMSQT were awarded Letters of Commendation to commend their exceptional academic potential. The selection process for Commended Students is based on a national Selection Index score, which can vary annually and is typically lower than the score required for Semifinalist designation in their respective state. Although Commended Students do not advance further in the National Merit Scholarship competition, they may still be eligible for Special Scholarships offered by various companies and businesses.

Semifinalists

In early September, around 16,000 students, which is roughly one-third of the 50,000 high scorers, receive notifications that they have qualified as Semifinalists. To make sure that academically gifted young people from all over the United States are part of this talented group, Semifinalists are selected on a state-representational basis. The Semifinalists are the highest-scoring entrants in every state, and their qualifying scores differ from state to state and year to year, but they are all extremely high. NMSC provides scholarship application materials to Semifinalists through their high schools. For Semifinalists to be considered for a National Merit Scholarship, they must meet high academic standards and all other requirements explained in the information provided to each Semifinalist and advance to Finalist status. For more information about what Semifinalists must do, please refer to the Requirements and Instructions for Semifinalists in the 2023 National Merit Scholarship Program.

Finalists

During February, more than 15,000 Semifinalists will receive a notification that they have progressed to the Finalist stage. High school principals are also informed and given a Certificate of Merit to present to every Finalist.

Winner Selection

The recipients of Merit Scholarship awards, also known as Merit Scholar® designees, are selected solely based on their abilities, skills, and accomplishments. The selection process is unbiased and does not take into account the candidate’s gender, race, ethnic origin, or religious preference. NMSC evaluates a range of information to make the final decision, including the Finalist’s academic record, details about the school’s curriculum and grading system, PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index score, a written recommendation from the high school official, information about the student’s activities and leadership, and the Finalist’s essay.

Types of Merit Scholarship Awards

From March to mid-June, NMSC notifies around 7,250 Finalists that they have been chosen to receive a Merit Scholarship® award. The award comes in three types.

National Merit® $2500 Scholarships

All finalists have the opportunity to compete for single-payment scholarships that are awarded on a state-representational basis. A committee of college admission officers and high school counselors select the winners, based solely on merit without taking into account the family’s financial situation, college preference, or career aspirations.

Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards

Corporate sponsors offer scholarships to children of their employees or members, residents of communities where the company operates, or Finalists who have career plans that the sponsor wants to support. The scholarships can either be renewable for four years of undergraduate study or a one-time award.

College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards

The awards of each sponsor college are given to the winners selected by their respective officials from the Finalists who have been accepted for admission. The Finalists must also inform NMSC by the specified deadlines that the sponsor college or university is their top preference. These awards are renewable for four years of undergraduate study. The deadlines for reporting the sponsoring college as the first choice can be found on page 4 of the Requirements and Instructions for Semifinalists in the 2023 National Merit Scholarship Program. Adobe Acrobat Reader is necessary to view these deadlines.

The Merit Scholarship awards receive support from around 400 independent sponsors, as well as from NMSC’s own funds. These sponsors are comprised of various organizations such as corporations, businesses, company foundations, professional associations, colleges, and universities.

Special Scholarships

Each year, around 800 exceptional students who participate in the National Merit Program but are not selected as Finalists are granted Special Scholarships funded by corporations and businesses. For eligibility, students must meet both the sponsor’s criteria and the entry requirements of the National Merit Scholarship Program. They must also submit an entry form to the sponsor organization. NMSC then contacts a group of high-scoring candidates through their respective high schools, and these students, along with their school officials, submit detailed scholarship applications. NMSC’s professional staff reviews the applicants’ abilities, skills, and accomplishments and selects the winners of the sponsor’s Special Scholarships. These scholarships can be either renewable for four years of undergraduate study or one-time awards.

The PSAT/NMSQT® Student Guide. provides a comprehensive list of corporate organizations that support National Merit Scholarships and/or Special Scholarships.

Additional Information

If you’re seeking information about the PSAT/NMSQT® or the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, the PSAT/NMSQT® Student Guide is an excellent resource. This guide is given to high school students before the test and contains everything you need to know about the National Merit Scholarship Program. You’ll learn about eligibility requirements, the various stages of the competition, and details about the groups of distinguished students and scholarships that are available. The Test-Taking Help section is also extremely helpful, providing essential information about the PSAT/NMSQT, including test regulations, sample test questions with instructions, and tips for answering them. Additionally, collegeboard.org, the test’s co-sponsor, has even more test-taking information available for you to explore.

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