How Do You Become a National Merit Scholar?

Last updated: Jan 31, 2019

This year, the roughly 7,500 applicants who are named National Merit Scholarship recipients will have waited about two years to see whether they would be chosen. It’s a long process begun annually by about 1.6 million contenders looking for the answer to a simple question: How do you become a National Merit Scholar?

What Is a National Merit Scholarship?

Becoming a National Merit Scholar is simple: Display rare academic excellence while compiling a record of social and civic accomplishments that will inspire whoever writes your letter of recommendation and enable you to make your application essay shine.

National Merit Scholarships comprise three monetary awards presented to roughly 7,500 students every year in a process overseen by the National Merit Scholarship Corp. Here are some defining numbers from the National Merit Scholarship Program process for 2019:

  • The Merit Scholarship application process for 2019 began in the fall of 2017 and was expected to last about 18 months.
  • The process began with some 3.5 million students taking the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test and/or National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.
  • About 1.6 million students’ scores qualified them to enter the National Merit Scholarship Program.
  • About 50,000 of the highest scoring students earned recognition either as a commended student or semifinalist.
  • About 15,000 of the semifinalists, or 90 percent, advance to finalist status, typically in February, based on academic standards and other requirements.
  • Of the approximately 15,000 finalists, some 7,500 become Merit Scholars, with recipients typically receiving scholarship offers from late March through early May.

The cutoff scores by state for 2019 were announced in August 2018, and students who made the cut learned in September whether they had achieved commendation or semifinalist status.

USF National Merit Scholars

Who May Be a Merit Scholar?

There are three requirements for entering the National Merit Scholarship Program:

  • You must take the PSAT and/or NMSQT during your tenure as a high school student, typically in your junior year, and match or exceed the cutoff score.
  • You must be enrolled as a high school student, either traditional or home-schooled.
  • You must be a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident (or someone who is awaiting results of an application for permanent residence) who plans to become a citizen as soon as possible.

There Are Several Types of Scholarships

The combined value of National Merit Scholarship Program awards for 2019 tops $42 million for about 8,700 awards. And the 7,500 Merit Scholarships for finalists fall into three categories: $2,500 National Merit Scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships, and college-sponsored scholarships.

Variable and fixed renewable corporate-sponsored awards range from $500 to $10,000 a year, with single-payment one-time awards of $2,500 to $5,000.

Sponsor colleges’ renewable awards of $500 to $2,000 a year help with up to four years of undergraduate study. Some of the award can come in the form of loans, employment, and grants. The Merit Scholarship stipend must, however, “represent at least half the winner’s need, up to the annual stipend maximum of $2,000, unless the student’s total need (as calculated by the college) is met with gift aid.”

Beginning in March 2019, the launch of Special Scholarships will benefit 1,200 applicants who didn’t make the cut as finalists but meet a sponsor’s criteria and entry requirements and submit a sponsor’s entry form.

prospective NMS at USF

When Should You Take the PSAT/NMSQT?

In the National Merit Scholarship Corp.’s own words: “To participate in the National Merit Program, students must take the PSAT/NMSQT in the specified year of their high school program. Because a student can participate (and be considered for a scholarship) in only one specific competition year, the year in which the student takes the PSAT/NMSQT to enter the competition is very important.”

  • Students who plan to finish high school in four years must take the qualifying test(s) in their junior year.
  • Students who intend to leave high school early may vie for a Merit Scholarship if they take the PSAT/NMSQT before enrolling in college.
  • Students who plan to be enrolled in high school and college at the same time must take the qualifying test(s) in their junior year of high school.
  • Students who plan to spend five years in high school must take the PSAT/NMSQT in the third and fourth years of high school.

Prepping for the PSAT/NMSQT

Acing the PSAT/NMSQT bodes well for your encounter with the SAT and your admissions and scholarship hunts.

Fortunately, PSAT test prep advice is an internet genre. Consider strategies presented by PrepScholar, CollegeXpress, and College Board.

Helpful blogs and practice tests are among the online offerings.

Prepping for the SAT

To advance to Merit Scholarship finalist status, applicants must submit an SAT score that confirms the reported performance on the PSAT/NMSQT. The scholarship opportunity adds value to the critical preparation you will do for the SAT.

USF is one good source for SAT test preparation. The university offers an SAT Summer Institute and SAT Blitz sessions. It also is a National Merit Scholarship sponsor and will provide a scholarship to any finalist who selects USF as their first choice school with the National Merit Scholarship Program.

If you have scholarship or enrollment questions, the USF Office of Admissions is always ready with answers. You can contact us online or by phone at 813-974-3350.