What is a National Merit Scholarship, and how do you qualify?

You’ve heard of the PSAT, but you may be surprised to know that the exam’s full name is PSAT/NMSQT: Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The program itself began in 1955 to acknowledge and reward high-achieving students in standardized testing. These days, several million students enter each year, so it’s more important than ever to know all the guidelines.

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic scholarship competition that awards merit-based scholarships to the highest performers on the PSAT. Each October, juniors take the PSAT at school, and those test results are sent to the NMSC for consideration. Recognition from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) means that students may become eligible for scholarships from participating universities and corporations.

So, how do you qualify for a National Merit Scholarship?

Students can be eligible to participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program by

  1. Attending a high school in the U.S., District of Columbia, or U.S. commonwealth and territories OR or meeting the citizenship requirements for students attending high school outside the U.S.
  2. Taking the PSAT/NMSQT by their junior year (11th grade)
  3. Progressing toward high school graduation (whether in a traditional or homeschool setting)
  4. Planning on enrolling and attending college the fall following high school

Students who are interested in taking this test must check with their high schools to ensure availability because the exam is administered by registered high schools. If your high school does not participate in the PSAT/NMSQT, students should approach their counselors early in the school year, as advised by the NMSC. 

Furthermore, if you are a nontraditional high school student planning on graduating high school early, taking 5 years to graduate, or pursuing post-secondary enrollment (high school and college simultaneously), you may need to take the PSAT at a different year. More specific guidelines for unique schooling arrangement cases can be found here on the National Merit website.

Okay, so you took the PSAT. Now what?

Here’s how the PSAT/NMSQT is graded to select students for the National Merit program: after schools send their scores to the NMSC, a Selection Index score is calculated by doubling the sum of the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math test scores. Each section of the PSAT is graded from 8-38, which means that the Selection Index can range from 48-228. Every state has its own specific Selection Index score cut-off for qualifying students, and this number can change from one year to the next.

What is the scholarship success rate and general timeline?

In September, about 50,000 students received recognition as either a Commended Student or a Semifinalist. Receiving a Letter of Commendation recognizing outstanding academics means that your score was below the qualifying Selection Index score for Semifinalists. However, by receiving this recognition, students may still be eligible for outside scholarships. 

If you are selected as a Semifinalist, you are among the highest-scoring students in your state and in the top 1% of high school seniors. Even better? You are in the running for the National Merit Scholarship. At this point, you will be required to fill out an online scholarship application, send ACT/SAT scores, and demonstrate high academic performance. 

If your application is selected, congratulations! You are now one of approximately 15,000 Finalists who will receive a Certificate of Merit in February. From this Finalist group, the NMSC will choose about 7,600 winners of the Merit Scholarship awards. Each winner receives a single-payment $2500 scholarship. In addition, National Merit Scholars may be eligible for merit scholarships awarded by corporations or universities. 

Now that you know how to qualify, how should you prepare?

Ultimately, your PSAT score needs to meet your state’s Selection Index qualifying score. These cut-offs can change each year, so it's a good idea to estimate a goal score a few points above the previous year’s score. Here are some steps you can take to prepare:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the PSAT.
  2. Take a diagnostic test. (Contact us here to schedule your diagnostic.)
  3. Practice with official exams. Previously administered exams are great sources of practice material!


Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.


About ArborBridge

ArborBridge is the global leader in innovative, digital, one-on-one tutoring. With nearly a decade of experience teaching students online, ArborBridge supports students of all kinds: home schoolers, AP students, test preppers, and more. Our tutors specialize in creating personalized plans and in providing compassionate support for students and families.

Samhita Nanduri

About Samhita Nanduri

After attending the University of Southern California on a full tuition scholarship, Samhita earned her MSc in Global Medicine at USC Keck. Understanding the demands of higher education, Samhita practices empathy, approachability, and integrity in order to see her students reach their full potentials.

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