The National Merit Scholarship is one of the most popular scholarships among ambitious high school students. Not surprisingly, that also makes it one of the most competitive.

In fact, approximately 1.5 million high school students enter the National Merit Scholarship Program each year. And only 7,600 students make it past the final round to win the scholarship! 

But who’s to say you can’t be one of them? There’s nothing wrong with a little competition! Plus, as long as you’re also applying for less competitive scholarships, you’ve got nothing to lose. 

So, our advice: apply to all the scholarships that are specifically offered to students with your unique background and goals, which you can quickly and easily by signing up for Scholly! AND, at the same time, do your best to prepare yourself as a strong candidate for the National Merit Scholarship.

To help you out, in this post, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about the National Merit Scholarship Program. When you finish reading, you’ll know how to answer: 

  • How much are National Merit Scholarships worth?
  • What are the National Merit Scholarships eligibility requirements?
  • How are National Merit Scholarships recipients chosen?
  • What is the average PSAT score needed for the National Merit Scholarships?
  • What is the National Merit Scholarship application timeline?

We’ll also end by sharing 5 tips to improve your chances of winning a National Merit Scholarship! 

But before we dive in, let’s start with a quick overview of the National Merit Scholarship Program.  

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program? 

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic scholarship competition for high school students. Specifically, it’s for US-based high school students and high school students who are U.S. citizens studying abroad. The program is run by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NSMC) and has been around since 1955. 

We cover all of the eligibility requirements later in this post. But, first, it’s important to know the most significant factor is definitely your score on the PSAT/NMSQT. 

What is the PSAT/NMSQT? 

The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) is a multiple-choice standardized exam that tests your knowledge in math, evidence-based reading, and writing.

Your score for each section of the exam will fall between 160–760, which means a perfect score would be 1520. But that’s not the score that will determine your competitiveness for a National Merit Scholarship. 

Instead, the NSMC will be looking at your selection index score, which will be between 48-228. If you’re not sure what your selection index score is, you can use CollegePanda’s easy-to-use PSAT National Merit Cutoff Calculator.

How Are National Merit Scholarship Recipients Chosen?

After all of the PSAT/NMSQT exams have been taken and scored, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) selects around 50,000 students with the highest scores to become commended students or semifinalists. 

What’s the difference? 

Commended Students

Commended students make up around 34,000 of the 50,000 selected students. If you land in this bracket of students, you’ll receive recognition for your killer exam scores and academic promise. Unfortunately, though, you don’t get to continue in the competition.

But, as a commended student, you may still be eligible for special scholarships sponsored by participating corporations and businesses.

Semifinalists 

Semifinalists, on the other hand, make up the remaining 16,000 students. To make sure all US states are represented among the semifinalists, the NSMC selects students on a state-representational basis. 

You’re likely to be selected as a semifinalist if you have the highest scores among students from your state. In a minute, we’ll look at the average PSAT scores for each state so you know what to aim for! Why? Because you’ll have a better chance of becoming a finalist if you’ve scored above your state’s average. 

Finalists 

To advance from a semifinalist to one of the 15,000 finalists, you’ll need to meet some requirements in addition to your test scores.

According to the 2020-21 instructions and requirements for semifinalists, to advance from semifinalist to finalist standing you’ll need to: 

  • Continue to meet the program entry requirements (listed in the next section) 
  • Be enrolled in the last year of high school and be planning to enroll full time in college in the fall of 2021 or be enrolled in the first year of college, if you completed grades 9 through 12 in three years or less.
  • Attend high school in the United States, District of Columbia, or U.S. commonwealths and territories; or, meet the citizenship requirements for students attending high school outside the United States
  • Be fully endorsed for Finalist standing and recommended for a National Merit Scholarship by your high school principal (or school official designated by the principal). 
  • Have a record of consistently very high academic performance in all of grades 9 through 12 and in any college course work taken. 
  • Your official scores on either the SAT or ACT. For the 2020-21 applicants, these exam scores were not required due to limited testing caused by the global pandemic. It’s not yet known when this requirement will return.  
  • Submit the National Merit Scholarship application to your high school official as soon as possible using NMSC’s Online Scholarship Application (OSA). The school official will complete the school’s sections of the application for final submission to NMSC.
  • Provide any additional documentation and information that NMSC requests (e.g. proof of permanent residency or information about when you plan to become a permanent resident/U.S. citizen) 

Special Instructions for College Students

If you’ve already begun college when you find out you’re a Semifinalist, you’ll need to contact the high school you last attended ASAP. Why? Because they’ll be responsible for completing the high school portion of your National Merit Semifinalist Application. 

As a college student, you’ll also need to have your college send NMSC an official transcript of

all college course work you have taken. This also needs to be done ASAP to ensure your application gets reviewed in time! 

National Merit Scholarship Winners 

The approximately 7,600 National Merit Scholars are chosen from the pool of Finalists. A selection committee will evaluate your application based on: 

  • Your academic record
  • Information about your school’s curriculum and grading system 
  • Your PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index Score
  • Your high school official’s written recommendation
  • Information about your extracurricular activities and leadership
  • Your scholarship application essay

National Merit Scholarship Eligibility Requirements 

With 1.5 million students entering the National Merit Scholarship Program every year, there’s a good chance you’re also eligible. But let’s make sure!

According to the official guidelines, to participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program, you must: 

  • Take the PSAT/NMSQT no later than the third year in grades 9 through 12. When you take the test you’ll need to answer some questions to confirm you’d like to enter the scholarship program. 
  • Be enrolled as a high school student (traditional or homeschooled), progressing normally toward graduation or completion of high school, and planning to accept admission to college no later than the fall following completion of high school
  • Attend high school in the United States, the District of Columbia, or U.S. commonwealth and territory or meet the citizenship requirements for students attending high school outside the United States

If you attend high school outside the U.S., you must: 

  • Be a citizen of the United States; or be a U.S. lawful resident (or have applied for permanent residence, the application for which has not been denied) and intend to become a U.S. citizen at the earliest opportunity allowed by law

How Much Are National Merit Scholarships Worth? 

If you’re chosen as one of the 7,6000 winners, you’ll receive one of the following scholarships, worth at least $2,500: 

  • National Merit Scholarships
  • Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarships 
  • College-Sponsored Merit Scholarships

The National Merit Scholarships are the scholarships available to all winners. They’re worth $2,500 and are only good for one year.

The Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarships are for the 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. 

The College-Sponsored Merit Scholarships 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. 

You can check out the full list of corporations and colleges that participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program here!

Average PSAT Scores by State Needed for National Merit Scholarships 

Here are the official cutoff PSAT scores by state for students who advanced as semifinalists in the class of 2021:

Alabama 212
Alaska 212
Arizona 218
Arkansas 212
California 221
Colorado 217
Connecticut 220
Delaware 219
District of Columbia 222
Florida 216
Georgia 219
Hawaii 217
Idaho 214
Illinois 219
Indiana 215
Iowa 212
Kansas 214
Kentucky 214
Louisiana 212
Maine 213
Maryland 221
Massachusetts 222
Michigan 216
Minnesota 218
Mississippi 211
Missouri 214
Montana 210
Nebraska 213
Nevada 215
New Hampshire 215
New Jersey 222
New Mexico 211
New York 220
North Carolina 217
North Dakota 209
Ohio 215
Oklahoma 211
Oregon 217
Pennsylvania 217
Rhode Island 216
South Carolina 212
South Dakota 209
Tennessee 215
Texas 219
Utah 212
Vermont 212
Virginia 221
Washington 220
West Virginia 209
Wisconsin 213
Wyoming 209
​U.S. Abroad 222
​U.S. Territories 209

National Merit Scholarship Timeline 

So, as you may have noticed, there are a lot of steps to become a winner of the National Merit Scholarship. From taking the PSAT/NMSQT to being selected as a winner, here’s the timeline: 

October: You take the PSAT/NMSQT (typically in your junior year)

May: The NMSC announces the 50,000 commended students 

September: The NMSC announces the 16,000 semi-finalists who will then need to complete the National Merit Semifinalist Application 

February: The NMSC announces the 15,000 finalists

March-May: The NSMC announces the 7,600 National Merit Scholarship winners

5 Tips to Improve Your Chances of Winning a National Merit Scholarship 

Want to give yourself the best shot of making it to the last round of the National Merit Scholarship Program? Follow these 5 tips! 

Work on Your English and Math Test-Taking Skills 

As you now know, you’ll need a pretty good score on the PSAT/NMSQT to even qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. And, if you’re selected as a semifinalist, you may also need to submit your scores on the SAT or ACT. 

What do all of these standardized exams have in common? They’re a test of your knowledge in reading & language arts and mathematics. So, if you’re serious about winning, try to put some extra effort into improving your test-taking skills in these areas.

Not sure how to get started? Check out Khan Academy’s free test prep!

Maintain a GPA of at least 3.5 or better

A high PSAT score may get you to the semifinalist round. But from there, you’ll have a better shot of winning the National Merit Scholarship if the rest of your application is just as strong. 

When completing the high school portion of your semifinalist application, the NMSC asks your high school officials to report if there has been any decline in your academic performance for the current year. 

So, if you find yourself struggling in one of your classes, be sure to get help from your teachers, a tutor, or free online resources.

Stay committed to extracurricular activities

If chosen as a semifinalist, you’ll also need to share information about your involvement in extracurricular activities, community service, leadership positions, honors or awards, and employment.

You’ll make the best impression with your activities if you’ve been actively involved for several years and have some sort of leadership role. Why? Because the NMSC will be looking to see what kind of things you’re passionate about and committed to. 

Maintain positive relationships with your principal and other school officials

You’ll need your principal or a similar school official to endorse your application, report any updates on your academic performance, and provide a recommendation. And the NMSC gives them the right to revoke their endorsement at any point in the competition.

So, make sure your teachers and principal know ahead of time that you’ll be applying for the National Merit Scholarship! You’ll want to make sure they’re ready to support you every step of the way. 

Writing an excellent scholarship essay

The last part of the National Merit Semifinalist application is a personal essay. This is one of the few parts of the application where you get to really express who’s behind the test scores and grades. 

So, you’ll want to spend some time making this essay good! If you’re not sure what to write about, you can check out these in-depth guides on how to write spectacular scholarship essays and personal statements.

Where to Find More Scholarships 

The National Merit Scholarship Program is one of the most competitive scholarship programs you can find. But, with the right preparation, you can compete and win! 

We hope the information we’ve shared here helps you make that happen. But don’t stop there! You’ll have the highest chance of reducing your costs for college if you apply for as many scholarships as you can. 

To easily find them, download Scholly Search, the #1 scholarship app in the world that instantly matches you with hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in scholarships based on your interests, accomplishments, and traits! 

You can also check out the rest of our blog where we share tips on how you can find ways to pay for college and win other scholarships like the Burger King Scholarship and the McDonald’s Scholarships.

Good luck!