In 1955, the headlines were dominated by earth-shaking events such as Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience that set off the Montgomery Bus Boycott, athletic triumphs like the long-suffering Brooklyn Dodgers finally defeating the New York Yankees in the World Series, and business developments like McDonald’s opening the doors to its first franchise restaurants. Back then, when a McDonald’s hamburger cost 19 cents, college tuition was also largely affordable. Nevertheless, the United States was engaged in a frantic scientific race with the Soviet Union and the country was desperate to identify talented young people who could play a hand in winning the Cold War. Toward this aim, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation was established in order to help discover America’s brightest teens and offer them a financial reward as they pursued higher education.

In 1956, just 58,158 students entered the competition; by 2015 that figure was almost 1.5 million. In order to help you fully understand this widely-entered contest, the College Transitions team will explain:

  • The entry requirements for the National Merit Scholarship Program
  • How National Merit Scholars are selected
  • What PSAT score do I need to win a National Merit Scholarship?
  • When the National Merit Scholarship Corporation announces scholarship winners
  • How much money you win as a National Merit Scholarship recipient
  • What are the admissions-related benefits of being a National Merit Scholar?

What are the student entry requirements for the National Merit Scholarship Program?

The criteria for qualifying is as follows:

  • You must take the PSAT/NMSQT in your third year (junior year) of high school.
  • You must be enrolled as a high school student in either a traditional or homeschool setting.
  • You must plan on enrolling in college the fall after high school graduation.
  • You must attend high school in the U.S., District of Columbia, or U.S. commonwealth or territory. If you are attending high school in a foreign country, you are still eligible as long as you hold U.S. citizenship.

How are National Merit Scholars selected?

Out of the roughly 1.6 million students taking the exam in 2020, only 50,000 will qualify for National Merit Program recognition. Right off the bat, 34,000 of this high-scoring group will be handed Letters of Commendation, but they will not continue on in the competition for a monetary scholarship. The other 16,000 students will be granted “Semifinalist” status.

Your score on the PSAT will get you in the running, but it takes more than a stellar standardized test score to become a National Merit Scholar. As such, when academic prowess is included as part of the evaluation, roughly 1,000 Semifinalists are excluded. From this remaining pool of 15,000 “Finalists,” 7,600 will be selected as National Scholarship Winners based on a review of their “abilities, skills, and accomplishments.”

What PSAT/NMSQT score do I need to become a National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist?

Some students do not realize that the cutoff score to become a Semifinalist varies (sometimes greatly) by state. Each test-taker is awards a “Selection Index Score” which is calculated by doubling the sum of your reading, writing & language; and math scores, At the low end, West Virginia has recently used 212 as a cutoff while Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey have utilized a far more rigorous cutoff of 223.  These scores can change from year-to-year.

When are National Merit Scholar winners announced?

The NMSC releases the names of scholarship winners in April, May, June, and July.

How much money do you get from the National Merit Scholarship?

From a purely monetary standpoint, some may consider the most commonly awarded scholarship amounts to be a bit disappointing. They are as follows:

National Merit Scholarships: $2,500 toward freshman year only.

Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards: These are four-year renewable awards that range from $500 to $2,000 per year.

College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards: The best deal of the three, corporate scholarships typically range from $500 to $10,000 per year, and are renewable for all four years of college.

However, it is important to realize that being a National Merit Finalist/Semifinalist can also lead to a greatly reduced or even FREE tuition at some universities. Being a National Merit Finalist or Semifinalist is one component of some of the most generous merit aid scholarships at premier universities including:

Fordham University: Those who were National Merit Finalists or Semifinalists AND possess a solid “A” average and are in the top 2-3% of all admitted students (as determined by the university) receive free tuition, renewable for all four years.

New Jersey Institute of Technology: National Merit Finalists are eligible to receive all tuition and fees covered, renewable for four years, contingent on maintaining a 3.0 GPA.

Texas Tech University: National Merit Finalists who designate Texas Tech as their top choice are eligible to receive a full free ride, including room & board.

University of Southern California: If USC is your first-choice college and you are a National Merit Finalist then you are eligible for a scholarship equal to half tuition (approximately $29,000).

What are the admissions benefits of being a National Merit Scholar?

The benefits of being a National Merit Scholar go well beyond sheer monetary assistance; the prestige of the award will also provide a boost to most students in their application process. Colleges like to mention the number of National Merit Scholars in their incoming freshman class, so earning this distinction can be a nice feather in your cap. The following schools enrolled massive numbers of Merit Scholar awardees in their Class of 2022:

  • Harvard University: 195
  • Stanford University: 157
  • MIT: 147
  • Duke University: 106
  • Princeton: 90
  • Cornell: 78

Of course, it is important to note that these students were not admitted solely because they had won a single award. Most students getting accepted into any of the above institutions possessed near-perfect grades and standardized test scores AND had other special attributes outside of the classroom that helped them stand out from an extremely talented pack of applicants.

Capturing a National Merit scholarship is an excellent credential to include on your application, but it is far from a guaranteed ticket to an Ivy or Ivy-equivalent institution. Possessing such a credential will, however, provide an even greater admissions boost at schools in the next tier of selectivity. The following excellent schools attract far fewer scholarship winners than their uber-elite peers and are more likely to grant National Merit Scholars a major edge in the admissions process:

  • Bates College: 1
  • Haverford College: 3
  • Colgate University: 4
  • Middlebury College: 6
  • NC State: 7
  • NYU: 20

Key Takeaways

  • Your PSAT score junior year will be the biggest factor in your pursuit of a National Merit award.
  • While a “national” award, the cutoff scores actually vary by state.
  • Winners receive one three types of awards—National Merit Scholarships, corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards, or college-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards.
  • Certain universities will also award sizable merit aid scholarships (up to full tuition), even for Semifinalists.
  • A National Merit designation can help in the admissions process, but your SAT/GPA and “hook” will matter more at America’s most selective schools.