National Merit Scholarship Program
The National Merit® Scholarship Program is an academic competition for recognition and scholarships that began in 1955. Approximately 1.6 million high school students enter the program each year.
How to Enter the Competition
High School students who meet published program entry and participation requirements enter the National Merit® Scholarship Program by taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT®) at the specified time in the high school program, usually as juniors. Each year’s PSAT/NMSQT is the qualifying test designated for entry to a particular year’s competition. For example, the 2019 PSAT/NMSQT is the qualifying test for entry to the competition for scholarships to be awarded in 2021.
Registration for the test is by high school rather than individual student. Interested students should see their counselor at the beginning of the school year to make arrangements to take the PSAT/NMSQT at the school in the fall.
Note: The PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9 will not be considered for entry to the National Merit Scholarship Program. The PSAT/NMSQT is the official route of entry to the National Merit Scholarship Program.
Student Entry Requirements
To participate in the National Merit® Scholarship Program, a student must:
- take the PSAT/NMSQT® in the specified year of the high school program and no later than the third year in grades 9 through 12, regardless of grade classification or educational pattern;
- 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; and
- 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 (see below).
Students attending high school outside the U.S.: To be eligible for the 2020 National Merit Scholarship Program, students attending high school outside the United States 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.
On test day, students are asked some questions to determine entry to the National Merit Scholarship Program.
When to Take the PSAT/NMSQT®
- Students who plan to spend the usual four years in high school (grades 9 through 12) before entering college full time must take the PSAT/NMSQT in their third year (grade 11, junior year). They will be entering the competition that ends when awards are offered in the spring of their fourth high school year (grade 12, senior year), the same year they will leave high school and enter college.
Although some schools encourage their sophomores to take the PSAT/NMSQT for guidance purposes, these students must take the test again when they are juniors to enter the National Merit Scholarship Program if they are spending the usual four years of study in grades 9 through 12.
- Students who plan to leave high school a year (or more) early to enroll in college full time usually can participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program if they take the PSAT/NMSQT before they enroll in college. Such students must take the PSAT/NMSQT in either the next-to-last year or the last year they are enrolled in high school.
- Those who take the PSAT/NMSQT in the next-to-last year of high school will be entering the competition for awards to be offered as they are finishing their final high school year.
- Those who take the PSAT/NMSQT in their last year of high school will be entering the competition for awards to be offered as they are completing their first year of college.
- Students who plan to participate in a post-secondary enrollment options program (through which they enroll simultaneously in both high school and college) must take the PSAT/NMSQT in their third year of high school (grade 11, junior year) to enter the National Merit Scholarship Program. The determination of whether the student is participating in a post-secondary enrollment options program is made by the high school, which certifies the student’s status.
- Students who plan to spend five years in grades 9 through 12 before entering college full time can participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program if they take the PSAT/NMSQT in the third year of high school and again in the fourth year. These students’ Selection Index scores will not be eligible for the program until a written request for entry to the competition is approved by NMSC. The request should include the student’s name, high school name and location, year the student began high school, year the student will complete high school, and a brief explanation of the student’s educational pattern.
NMSC will use the student’s Selection Index score from the PSAT/NMSQT taken in the student’s third year of grades 9 through 12 to determine the expected level of recognition. In order to be recognized in the fifth (final) year of high school, the student must take the PSAT/NMSQT again in the fourth year and earn a qualifying Selection Index score at or above the level achieved on the third year test. The level of recognition a student receives cannot exceed the level earned on the qualifying test taken during the student’s third year in grades 9 through 12, the year in which all other competitors are considered.
Note: 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. If there is a question about whether a student can participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program because his or her educational plans do not fit one of the preceding descriptions, or for any other reason, contact NMSC immediately.
If a Student Misses the PSAT/NMSQT® Administration
A student who does not take the PSAT/NMSQT because of illness, an emergency, or other extenuating circumstance, but meets all other requirements for NMSC program participation, may still be able to enter the competition. The student or a school official must write to NMSC as soon as possible after the PSAT/NMSQT administration to request information about procedures for alternate entry to the National Merit Scholarship Program. To be considered, a request must be postmarked no later than April 1 following the PSAT/NMSQT administration that was missed. The alternate entry request should include the name and address of the student; the contact information of the person making the request; the name and address of the student’s high school; and a brief explanation of why the student missed the PSAT/NMSQT.
The earlier NMSC receives the written request, the greater the student’s opportunities for meeting alternate entry requirements. Upon receiving and processing the request, NMSC will provide alternate entry materials, including instructions for program entry and a form that requires the signature of a school official.
PSAT/NMSQT® Scores Are Sent to NMSC
As cosponsor of the test, NMSC receives all PSAT/NMSQT scores and certain information students provide on their answer sheets. Score Reports provided for test takers and their schools show a student’s Selection Index score (calculated by doubling the sum of the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math Test scores) and whether the student meets NMSC program entry requirements. An asterisk (*) next to the Selection Index score means the student’s scores will not be used for entry. A school official or the student should immediately notify NMSC of any error or change in reported information that may affect participation. The Selection Index scores of students who meet entry requirements are used to designate high scorers to receive recognition.
Of the 1.6 million entrants, some 50,000 with the highest PSAT/NMSQT® Selection Index scores (calculated by doubling the sum of the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math Test scores) qualify for recognition in the National Merit® Scholarship Program. In September, these high scorers are notified through their schools that they have qualified as either a Commended Student or Semifinalist.
In late September, more than two-thirds (about 34,000) of the approximately 50,000 high scorers on the PSAT/NMSQT® receive Letters of Commendation in recognition of their outstanding academic promise. Commended Students are named on the basis of a nationally applied Selection Index score that may vary from year to year and is typically below the level required for participants to be named Semifinalists in their respective states. Although Commended Students do not continue in the competition for National Merit® Scholarships, some of these students do become candidates for Special Scholarships sponsored by corporations and businesses.
In early September, about 16,000 students, or approximately one-third of the 50,000 high scorers, are notified that they have qualified as Semifinalists. To ensure that academically talented young people from all parts of the United States are included in this talent pool, Semifinalists are designated on a state-representational basis. Semifinalists are the highest scoring entrants in each state. Qualifying scores vary from state to state and from year to year, but the scores of all Semifinalists are extremely high. NMSC provides scholarship application materials to Semifinalists through their high schools. To be considered for a National Merit® Scholarship, Semifinalists must advance to Finalist standing in the competition by meeting high academic standards and all other requirements explained in the information provided to each Semifinalist. View the Requirements and Instructions for Semifinalists in the 2020 National Merit Scholarship Program for more information about what Semifinalists must do. (Adobe Acrobat Reader is required.)
In February, some 15,000 Semifinalists are notified by mail at their home addresses that they have advanced to Finalist standing. High school principals are notified and provided with a Certificate of Merit to present to each Finalist.
All winners of Merit Scholarship® awards (Merit Scholar® designees) are chosen from the Finalist group based on their abilities, skills, and accomplishments—without regard to gender, race, ethnic origin, or religious preference. A variety of information is available for NMSC selectors to evaluate: the Finalist’s academic record, information about the school’s curricula and grading system, PSAT/NMSQT Selection Index score, the high school official’s written recommendation, information about the student’s activities and leadership, and the Finalist’s own essay.
Types of Merit Scholarship® Awards
Beginning in March and continuing to mid-June, NMSC notifies approximately 7,600 Finalists at their home addresses that they have been selected to receive a Merit Scholarship® award. Merit Scholarship awards are of three types:
- National Merit® $2500 Scholarships
Every Finalist competes for these single-payment scholarships, which are awarded on a state-representational basis. Winners are selected by a committee of college admission officers and high school counselors without consideration of family financial circumstances, college choice, or major and career plans.
- Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards
Corporate sponsors designate their awards for children of their employees or members, for residents of a community where a company has operations, or for Finalists with career plans the sponsor wishes to encourage. These scholarships may either be renewable for four years of undergraduate study or one-time awards
- College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards
Officials of each sponsor college select winners of their awards from Finalists who have been accepted for admission and have informed NMSC by the published deadlines that the sponsor college or university is their first choice. These awards are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study. The published deadlines for reporting a sponsor college as first choice can be viewed on page 4 of the Requirements and Instructions for Semifinalists in the 2020 National Merit® Scholarship Program. (Adobe Acrobat Reader is required.)
Merit Scholarship awards are supported by some 400 independent sponsors and by NMSC’s own funds. Sponsor organizations include corporations and businesses, company foundations, professional associations, and colleges and universities.
Every year some 1,100 National Merit® Program participants, who are outstanding but not Finalists, are awarded Special Scholarships provided by corporations and business organizations. To be considered for a Special Scholarship, students must meet the sponsor’s criteria and the entry requirements of the National Merit Scholarship Program. They also must submit an entry form to the sponsor organization. Subsequently, NMSC contacts a pool of high-scoring candidates through their respective high schools. These students and their school officials submit detailed scholarship applications. NMSC’s professional staff evaluates information about candidates’ abilities, skills, and accomplishments and chooses winners of the sponsor’s Special Scholarships. These scholarships may either be renewable for four years of undergraduate study or one-time awards.
A list of corporate organizations that sponsor National Merit® Scholarships and/or Special Scholarships is given in the PSAT/NMSQT® Student Guide.
More information about the PSAT/NMSQT® and National Merit Scholarship Corporation can be found in the PSAT/NMSQT® Student Guide sent to high schools for distribution to students before the test. The NMSC section gives requirements for entry to the National Merit Scholarship Program, explains steps in the competition, and describes groups of students honored and scholarships offered. The Test-Taking Help section provides important information about the PSAT/NMSQT, including test regulations, sample test questions with directions and tips for answering them, and a pull-out practice test for self-scoring. College Board, which cosponsors the test, provides more test-taking information at collegeboard.org