Admit-A-Bull // Official Admissions Blog

How Do You Become a National Merit Scholar?


Every year, the roughly 7,600 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 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 2021:

  • The Merit Scholarship application process for 2021 began in the fall of 2019 when students took 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.
  • In Septemer 2020, approximately 16,000 students qualified as semifinalists and continued on in the competition. About 34,000 students earned recognition as a commended student but did not continue on in the competition
  • About 15,000 of the semifinalists, or 90 percent, advanced to finalist status in February 2021, based on academic standards and other requirements.
  • Of the approximately 15,000 finalists, some 7,600 became Merit Scholars, and recipients received scholarship offers from late March through early May 2021.

The cutoff PSAT scores by state for 2022 were announced in September 2021, and students who made the cut learned in September whether they had achieved commendation or semifinalist status.

student in the classroom learning how to become a national merit scholar.

Who May Be a Merit Scholar?

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

  • You must take the PSAT/NMSQT no later than the third year in grades 9-12, 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

Scholarships for finalists fall into three categories:

National Merit Scholarships

These scholarships are worth $2,500 and are only good for one year. They are available to all winners.

Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarships

These scholarships are a winners who:

  • Are children of a participating company’s employees or members
  • Reside in the participating company’s community
  • Have career plans related to the participating company. 

Unlike the National Merit Scholarship, some Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarships are worth $2,500 + additional stipends and can be renewable. The exact amount for these scholarships will depend on the sponsoring company. 

College-Sponsored Merit Scholarships

These are four-year renewable scholarships for the winner’s chosen college, as long as the college participates in the program. The sponsoring college chooses the winners of $2,500 scholarships and may provide additional stipends. 

Special Scholarships

Approximately 1,100 National Merit Program participants, who are outstanding but not Finalists, are awarded special scholarships provided by corporations and business organizations.

When Should You Take the PSAT/MNSQT?

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.

female high school student in a library studying for the PSAT / NMSQT test to become a national merit scholar.

SAT Test Scores Waived for 2021

Typically, to advance to Merit Scholarship finalist status, applicants must submit an SAT score that confirms the reported performance on the PSAT/NMSQT. However, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation waived this requirement for 2021:

“Due to the global pandemic and the resulting lack of available test administrations, SAT and ACT scores will not be required or considered for Finalist standing in the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Program.”

This testing update was a response to the ongoing health crisis, and it is not anticipated to become a permanent program change. All other steps to become a National Merit Finalist remained in place. At this time, it is unclear if the testing requirement will be waived for 2022.

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.