The Scoop on Being a National Merit Scholar

Last updated: Mar 30, 2018

Typically, during the fall of your junior year of high school, you’ll take the PSAT/NMSQT. PSAT stands for Preliminary SAT, and it helps you get familiar with the SAT format and time constraints. NMSQT stands for the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which is used to identify potential National Merit Scholars. Here’s the scoop on being a National Merit Scholar.

Why Is the PSAT So Important?

Taking the PSAT/NMSQT helps you gain valuable practice for the SAT. After you receive your PSAT scores, you’ll know what areas need improvement, so you can prepare for the other standardized tests you’ll take later.

Also, the PSAT/NMSQT is a qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. Depending on your PSAT/NMSQT score, you could qualify for this special designation.

What Is the National Merit Scholarship Program?

The National Merit Scholarship Program was developed in 1955 as an academic competition for recognition and scholarships. By taking the PSAT/NMSQT and meeting the program’s entry and participation requirements, high school students have the opportunity to earn scholarships and the National Merit Scholar designation.

How Does the PSAT Help You Qualify for National Merit Scholarships?

To qualify, you have to take the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of your junior year of high school.

Many students take practice versions of this test (PSAT 8/9 and PSAT 10) in their freshman or sophomore years, but you must take the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of your junior year to potentially qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program. The PSAT/NMSQT is offered in October of each year and can usually be taken at your school or in your local community. Speak to your counselor in the spring of your sophomore year to find out when and where you can take the test.

Although you don’t send PSAT/NMSQT scores to colleges, earning a certain score on the PSAT/NMSQT could qualify you as a semifinalist for a National Merit Scholarship. If you’re listed as a National Merit semifinalist, you’ll be able to apply for National Merit Scholarships.

Student taking an exam

Steps to Becoming a National Merit Scholar:

Taking your PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of your junior year is the first step. Typically, the National Merit Scholarship Program is a competition that lasts a total of 18 months.

  • Program Recognition: Students with certain test scores will be notified through their high schools if they have qualified as a Commended Student or a Semifinalist.
  • Commended Students: Some students may receive Letters of Commendation to recognize their outstanding academic promise. While Commended Students don’t continue in the competition, these students may become candidates for other scholarships by schools, organizations and businesses.
  • Semifinalists: Some students will be notified that they have qualified as Semifinalists. These students are the highest scoring entrants from each state or qualifying country. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation will provide scholarship application materials to Semifinalists through their high schools.
  • Special Note: Keep in mind that in order to be considered for a National Merit Scholarship, Semifinalists have to advance to the Finalist standing in the competition and meet all additional requirements.
  • Finalists: Some of the Semifinalists will be notified by mail to their homes that they have advanced to the Finalist stage of the competition. High school principals are also notified and given a certificate for the Finalist.
  • Scholarship Selection: Scholarship winners are selected from the Finalist group based on their abilities, skills and accomplishments.

Some of the information used in the winner selection process includes the Finalist’s academic record, information about the school’s grading system and curricula, two sets of test scores (often PSAT/NMSQT and SAT), the high school’s written recommendation, information about the student’s activities and leadership, and the Finalist’s essay.

Don’t Miss Your Opportunity

After you take the PSAT/NMSQT during the fall of your junior year, make sure to study for your SAT, too. Your SAT score is another important test in both the National Merit Scholar Program and college admissions process.

If you have questions, don’t forget to ask your school counselors. They can help you learn more about the PSAT/NMSQT, SAT, ACT, scholarship opportunities, and the steps to becoming a National Merit Scholar.

Already a National Merit Semifinalist or Finalist and ready to learn more about what USF has to offer you? Feel free to check us out at admissions.usf.edu/nms or call 813-974-1749 to speak with our Admissions Scholarship Coordinator, Winsome Nisbett.