The National Merit Scholarship is an honor awarded to 2500 high school students every year to recognize their academic excellence. Bill Gates, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos all count themselves as members of this elite group. Most people know that the first step to becoming a National Merit Scholar is to take the PSAT, which is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT), but after that, the process is unclear. You’re simply told to wait for the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) to contact you. How exactly does one become a National Merit Scholar?
The NMSC releases some information about what a student must do to become a National Merit Scholar. Students have to take the PSAT during their junior year of high school (exceptions exist for those who are graduating early). About 1.5 million students take the PSAT every year. Of these, the NMSC selects the 50,000 with the highest scores to be selected either as a Commended Student or a National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist. Drawing on these 50,000 students, 34,000 are selected as Commended Students, and are out of the running to become National Merit Scholars. The remaining 16,000 are deemed National Merit Scholarship Semifinalists, and are notified early in their senior year of high school. Of these Semifinalists, 15,000 go on to become Finalists and vie for National Merit Scholarships.
Although becoming a National Merit Scholar is a huge honor, generally speaking, even becoming a Semifinalist is enough to have a significant impact on a student’s educational opportunities. Lists of Semifinalists are released to the media and colleges, who make concerted efforts to contact these students and offer them special scholarships and programs. This is not only because NMS Semifinalists are bright students, but also because colleges stand to benefit in the rankings if more Semifinalists elect to attend. Because becoming a Semifinalist can mean so much to students, there is a heavy focus on what it takes to make the cut.
This step-the selection of Semifinalists-is where the NMSC becomes reticent to divulge information. Semifinalists are chosen on a per-state basis in order to maintain a fair geographic distribution of National Merit Scholars. According to the NMSC, the cutoffs are selected to allow the top 0.5% of each state’s students to become Semifinalists. This means that there are different Semifinalist score cut-offs per state. For example, in 2008, if you scored above a 216 in the state of Texas, you were a Semifinalist; in California, however, the cut-off was 218. They span a fairly large range: roughly from 205 to 220 each year. The cutoffs are generally not published by the NMSC. In fact, they consider the cut-offs proprietary information and have had their lawyers request that bloggers remove the information from their websites.
Because the information is not published by the NMSC, data on the internet can be of questionable reliability. To get an idea of what the Semifinalist cut-off is in your state, you can examine old data and make an educated guess. Generally, the cut-offs do not vary by more than two or three points in either direction. The best way to hedge against those fluctuations and maximize your chances of becoming a National Merit Semifinalist is to prepare for the PSAT thoroughly. Although most students will prepare for the SAT, they often neglect the PSAT, which is arguably more important (because you only get one shot at becoming a Semifinalist). A great time to get ready for the PSAT and the SAT-which cover nearly identical material-is the summer after your sophomore year.