Incentive is the mother of motivation, and the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT) is no exception; one of the most obvious reasons students compete so desperately to become National Merit Scholars is the financial reward that accompanies such an achievement. Before we dole out sagacious and prescient advice on how to Be a National Merit Scholar! (like study your vocabulary, for example), we want our students to know exactly what they are competing for.
There are several different types of scholarship associated with being recognized by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).
- National Merit Scholarship $2500 Scholarships – These are one-time scholarship payments which every Finalist competes for. These scholarships are awarded on a state representational basis, and family circumstances, college choice, and major or career plans are not taken into consideration.
- Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards – These scholarships can be either one-time or four-year renewable awards. Corporate sponsors may designate scholarships to children of their employees or members, residents of a community in which the company operates, or for National Merit Finalists whose college or career plans the corporation wishes to encourage.
- College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards – These scholarships are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study; they are awarded by sponsor colleges to Finalists who will be attending that college or university, or to those who have indicated to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation that the sponsor college is their first choice.
All of these award types are prestigious and incredibly difficult to obtain. However, if the reason you prepare so diligently for the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test is financial in nature, then some are more desirous than others; specifically, the four year renewable scholarship types are what you should be focused on winning.
After reading these descriptions you may have noticed that each of the above scholarship-types share a distinct characteristic, namely that you must be a Finalist in order to qualify. This may seem a bit overwhelming as there are only about 15,000 Finalists every year, and that of those 15,000 Finalists, only about half will be awarded a scholarship.
Before giving up hope of ever obtaining any of these National Merit Scholarships, you should be aware that there is an additional scholarship type associated with being recognized by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation:
- Special Scholarships – These scholarships may be either four-year renewable or one-time awards; they are reserved for non-Finalist National Merit competitors. To be considered, students must meet the entry requirements set forth by the National Merit Scholarship Program as well the sponsor’s criteria. Candidates must submit entry forms to the sponsor organization, after which the NMSC will contact and review high scoring candidates through their respective high schools (usually by notifying your high school principle).
The NMSC releases some information about what a student must do to become a National Merit Scholar. This information has been discussed in previous posts; however, the process is basically as follows:
1. Students have to take the PSAT during their junior year of high school (some exceptions exist for those who are graduating early or cannot, for one reason or another, take the PSAT on the regularly scheduled test date). About 1.5 million students take the PSAT every year.
2. Of the approximately 1.5 million students who take the PSAT each year, the NMSC selects the 50,000 with the highest scores to be selected either as a Commended Student or a National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist.
3. Drawing on these 50,000 students, 34,000 are selected as Commended Students. These 34,000 Commended Students receive Letters of Commendation, but are out of the running to win a National Merit Scholarship. The remaining 16,000 students are deemed National Merit Scholarship Semifinalists, and are notified early in their senior year of high school. Along with your notification, you will receive the requisite application materials to advance in the National Merit competition.
4. Of these Semifinalists, 15,000 go on to become Finalists and vie for National Merit Scholarships.
Although becoming a National Merit Scholarship winner 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 National Merit Semifinalists represent some of the brightest young minds in the country, but also because colleges stand to benefit in ranking if these students elect to go there.
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 1/2 of the top 1% 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 230 each year. The cutoffs are not published by the NMSC, but are generally available online. (UPDATE: THE PSAT CHANGED IN 2015. INFORMATION ABOUT THE NEW SELECTION INDEX SCORE CAN BE FOUND HERE, HERE, AND HERE.)
Because this information is not published by the NMSC it might sometimes be difficult to guess at what score you need. To get an idea of what the Semifinalist cut-off is in your state, you can examine old data and make an educated guess. The cut-off score in any given state does not usually vary by anymore than two or three points in either direction. That said, the best way to hedge against those fluctuations and maximize your chances of becoming a National Merit Semifinalist is to thoroughly prepare for the PSAT. Although most students will prepare for the SAT, they often neglect the PSAT.
If you are interested in becoming a National Merit Finalist or Semifinalist, our recommendation is that you begin preparing no later than between freshman and sophomore year of high school.
This post is part of a series; other posts in this series include:
If you have any comments or questions, we encourage you to leave them below or Ask Test Masters directly.