National Merit Scholarship: What It Is and How to Qualify

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

students celebrating an academic win

National Merit Scholarship: What It Is and How to Qualify

Since 1955, the National Merit Scholarship Program has held an academic competition that awards a sizable scholarship of the same name to eligible students. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a not-for-profit, privately funded organization, holds this yearly competition for students who are interested in earning recognition and/or scholarships. Students that perform well in the National Merit Scholarship Program are given the esteemed title of a National Merit Scholar – an accolade that bodes well for students hoping to attend a highly-selective university, especially those within the Ivy League circle.

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High school students that are already thinking about their transition to college (which you should!) have most likely considered applying for scholarships in order to offset some of the financial burdens of a college education.

If you’ve been discouraged or overwhelmed by the amount of work that some of these scholarships require, the National Merit Scholarship might be just what you’ve been looking for. Some sources of financial aid require students to go through grueling processes for eligibility. Others aren’t even an option unless you’ve gained admission to a particular program or school.

Fortunately, the National Merit Scholarship isn’t one of these forms of financial assistance that requires students to jump through hoops to gain access. The only prerequisite to gain consideration for the National Merit Scholarship is to take an exam.

The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, aka PSAT,  acts as the qualifying test for students who are seeking entry into the National Merit Scholarship competition. Qualified students receive automatic consideration. There aren’t any maze-like application processes or convoluted requirements. Everything is straightforward and easy-to-understand – explaining why the National Merit Scholarship is one of the most popular scholarships in the US.

Always dedicated to helping students achieve their academic goals, the AdmissionSight team has outlined some of the most important information regarding the National Merit Scholarship to increase the likelihood of students gaining admittance. Read on to learn more about the National Merit Scholarship and how you can qualify.

Who is eligible to receive the National Merit Scholarship?

What if we were to tell you that you might already be eligible to receive a major scholarship without even knowing it? You probably wouldn’t believe it, but this is the reality for countless high school students across the United States who have already taken the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. You see, many students simply take this exam in anticipation of the significantly more popular SAT. The PSAT is widely seen as a practice-test that will help students understand what to expect on standardized tests down the road.

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While this feature of preparation is an additional benefit of the PSAT, it’s not the primary intent behind the exam. Although many high schoolers aren’t even aware of it, taking the PSAT automatically makes you eligible for receiving the National Merit Scholarship. In other words, if you’ve completed the PSAT, you’re already in line for consideration. The entrance is as easy and simple as completing the exam. Thus, the question becomes, who is eligible to take the PSAT?

The answer: any student who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident currently seeking citizenship is eligible. Students are allowed to take the PSAT in their third year of secondary school and must be on pace to graduate within a normal timeline. Even if you take the exam as a sophomore or a freshman, you won’t be considered for the National Merit Scholarship until you become a junior.

What is the format of the PSAT?

Although the PSAT has been around since the 1950s, the most recent redesign took place in 2015. The exam still focuses on testing reasoning skills, but there’s been a larger emphasis placed on the application and knowledge of diverse skills needed in real-life situations – a similar change that the SAT underwent.

Students have a little more than two hours and 45 minutes to complete the exam, which is divided into three different sections: math, writing, and reading. Each of these three sections contains around 45 questions. You’re permitted to use a calculator on a certain portion of the math part of the exam but not all of it.


All of the questions on the reading portion of the PSAT are multiple-choice and related to text passages. Some questions will include tables, charts, and other informational graphics. No math skills are required on this portion of the exam. Each question can be answered with the information provided by the reading passages. This test doesn’t assess your prior knowledge of particular topics. Here are some items the reading test always contains:

  • A text passage from a modern or classic piece of literature
  • A text passage about sociology, economics, psychology, or another social science
  • Two science passages examining foundational concepts and recent developments in physics, chemistry, biology or Earth science
  • A passage or group of smaller passages from a global text or US founding document


The writing component of the PSAT requires students to put on their editing caps and read passages in order to identify weaknesses and/or errors. Each question is based on particular passages that have accompanying multiple-choice answers. Similar to the reading portion of the exam, there are charts and graphs associated with some of the questions.

Also, this section doesn’t include any math nor does it require knowledge of any previous topics. All you need to answer the questions can be found within the passages. These passages are taken from a wide range of topics including the humanities, science, social studies, and history.


The PSAT’s recent overhaul saw the math portion split into two parts: one with a calculator and another without. However, the entire math portion of the exam focuses on three areas that are most commonly focused on in college courses: manipulations of complex equations, data analysis, and problem-solving. Other than these important areas, students should also have a good understanding of common formulas, geometry, and trigonometry.

Although a majority of the math questions on the PSAT are multiple-choice, there are 17 questions with a grid-in style. Instead of selecting an already-provided answer, you’ll have to work out the problems on your own.

How can I qualify for the National Merit Scholarship?

When compared to the processes for other scholarships, the National Merit Scholarship is quite simple in terms of gaming eligibility. First and foremost, you’ll have to take the PSAT. Don’t forget to take it in your junior year. While you can take the test beforehand, you can only qualify for the National Merit Scholarship when taking the test in your third year of high school.

If your scores are sufficient, you’ll automatically be qualified for formal recognition or scholarship consideration. Although you might be asked to complete an application, later on, this is only necessary if you’ve already been deemed a Semifinalist.

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If you’re planning to graduate from high school early, you can take the test during your junior or sophomore year. However, only one of the sittings can count towards the National Merit Scholarship. It’s always a good idea to speak with a reputable college admission specialist like AdmissionSight to decide whether this is a good idea.

What are the various levels of recognition for the National Merit Scholarship?

Annually, there are roughly 1.6 million juniors in high school taking the PSAT. As a result, over one and a half million students participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program every year – making it one of the most popular college scholarship opportunities in the country. Out of all these students, around 50,000 end up qualifying for recognition. That comes out to be the top 3%.

Around two-thirds of these eligible students end up receiving Letters of Commendation that acknowledge their achievements. Although this recognition doesn’t further a student in the program, it’s something that can be put in a college and even professional application. While it might not carry as much weight as other accolades or formal honors, these Letters of Commendation serve to recognize a student for high achievement on a popular standardized exam – something all admission officers will notice.

The remaining one-third of the qualified students, which come out to be the top 1% of participants, automatically become Semifinalists. This depends on how a student’s score is ranked in their state. For example, if you’re from a low-scoring state, the average scores are much lower, making it easier to stand out. The opposite is true for those coming from high-scoring states.

As a semifinalist, you’re invited to complete an application with SAT scores, high school course grades, and other relevant documents illustrating your leadership and academic skills. Many of these materials will reflect what’s required in the standard college application such as letters of recommendation and an essay. Of the 16,000 students deemed Semifinalists, a total of 15,000 will become Finalists.

If you make it into the Semifinalist stage, there’s a high chance you’ll end up becoming a Finalist. Roughly 7,500 Winners will be chosen out of the group of Finalists based on their submitted essay, recommendations, test scores, and grades. The $2,500 scholarships are need-blind but aren’t the only prizes available.

Are there any recognition opportunities available through the program?

You might have heard about some other recognition opportunities associated with the National Merit Scholarship Program. While it’s certainly true that there are other chances for recognition, there have been some major changes that need to be taken into account. For example, the National Hispanic Recognition Program recognizes around 5,000 Hispanic students for their academic achievements, based on their PSAT scores. Although there aren’t any cash awards offered, a list of qualified students is provided to universities around the country to help aid in their admission decisions. Until 2015, another common achievement award under the National Achievement Scholarship Program was also offered. However, the funds that propped up this recognition has since been reallocated. Still, there are various other awards offered o Finalists and even non-Finalists. Some of these are either offered by universities or large corporations. You might have to be accepted to a specific program or school in order to qualify, however.

What PSAT score do I need in order to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship?

The scores needed to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship aren’t stagnant. They fluctuate each year and depend on the state in which you’re located. Typically, Commended Students place within the highest 3% of eligible participants. Every state allows for a certain amount of Semifinalists. The exact number will depend on the population. As a result, the exact cut-off score for Semifinalists varies between states. Generally speaking, Semifinalists roughly represent the 0.5% highest scoring of those taking the PSAT.

As mentioned before, scholarship winners and Finalists aren’t solely chosen based on their scores. Keep in mind that Semifinalists have to submit an application along with some transcripts, essays, and recommendations in order to be considered for the National Merit Scholarship. Winners are chosen based on their applications instead of just their test scores, making it tough to pindown a qualifying score.

How can I increase my chances of earning the National Merit Scholarship?

As with all standardized and prep tests, it’s important to start preparing early. Although only juniors in high school are considered for the National Merit Scholarship, you can still take the PSAT your freshman and sophomore year. This is a great way to get a better understanding of what’s on the test, how it’s formatted, and how you fare with the content. This makes studying effectively much easier since you know what’s on the exam and which areas upon which you can improve. The results of your earlier tests can also be used to help with your studies.

a female student on an open mic

Preparing effectively and using accurate practice tests can have a major impact on your final test scores. Previously administered practice exams, prep courses, and tutoring is three significantly helpful materials with which to prepare for the PSAT. The Khan Academy has some excellent studying materials and other resources for PSAT prep. You can also speak with your librarian or counselor to see if your school has any available tools. These materials can also help you prepare for the SAT.

If you end up getting notified about being named as a Semifinalist, it’s important to further invest in preparation. Now that you’re past the test-taking round, you can focus on putting together the best application. You’ll want to focus on presenting your academic and personal achievements in the best light possible. Spend time on your essay to make sure every component of the prompt is answered.

Don’t assume that being a Semifinalist is an easy transition to becoming a Finalist or a winner. Some students might even opt to work with a college admission specialist, like AdmissionSight, to perfect their application and greatly improve their chances of receiving the coveted National Merit Scholarship.

At the end of the day, the PSAT isn’t as critical as the SAT in terms of college admissions. However, the National Merit Scholarship is one of the easiest college scholarships for which to qualify. Taking the test not only helps prepare you for standardized exams, but it also makes you eligible for receiving a hefty scholarship – something all college students could benefit from. Another major advantage of the National Merit Scholarship is the recognition and prestige associated with the program. It’s something you can proudly place on your college applications to further separate you from the crowd.

Tips for Writing a Winning Scholarship Essay

A well-crafted essay can significantly increase your chances of winning a scholarship. Scholarships provide financial aid to students, helping them pursue their educational goals and dreams. However, the competition for scholarships can be fierce, with numerous applicants vying for limited funds. Therefore, creating an essay that stands out from the rest is crucial. In this guide, we will explore how to understand the essay prompt and craft your story effectively.

Understanding the Essay Prompt

When you receive a scholarship essay prompt, it is essential to take the time to understand it fully. A prompt gives you a specific topic to write about, but it is more than just a topic. It is a doorway to your thoughts, experiences, and aspirations. Therefore, it is crucial to read and comprehend what the prompt is asking you.

Sometimes, essay prompts can be ambiguous or complex, making it challenging to grasp their true meaning. In such cases, breaking down the prompt into smaller parts can be beneficial. Analyze each component and try to understand the underlying message. By dissecting the prompt, you can ensure that your essay addresses all the necessary points and fulfills the requirements.

Moreover, paying attention to any specific instructions provided in the prompt is essential. These instructions may include word limits, formatting requirements, or particular questions that must be addressed. Adhering to these instructions demonstrates your ability to follow guidelines and showcases your attention to detail.

Crafting Your Story

Once you clearly understand the essay prompt, it is time to craft your story. Remember, every person’s story is unique, and your individuality could be the key to winning the scholarship. Start by reflecting on your life experiences, both significant and mundane, that have shaped who you are today.

Consider the challenges you have overcome, the lessons you have learned, and the moments that have had a profound impact on your personal growth. These experiences can provide valuable insights into your character, resilience, and determination.

Furthermore, it is essential to include your inspirations, goals, and aspirations in your essay. What drives you? What are your passions? How do you envision your future? You can showcase your motivation and dedication to achieving success by sharing your dreams and ambitions.

Lastly, tie in the scholarship with your plans. Explain how the financial aid will help you pursue your educational goals and contribute to your personal and professional development. Emphasize the alignment between the scholarship’s values and your own, highlighting how receiving the scholarship will enable you to make a positive impact on your community and society as a whole.

In conclusion, writing a winning scholarship essay requires carefully understanding the prompt and compelling storytelling. By comprehending the prompt and crafting a persuasive narrative that showcases your unique experiences and aspirations, you can increase your chances of standing out among other applicants and securing the scholarship you deserve.

How AdmissionSight can help

AdmissionSight has a long history of helping students accomplish their academic goals. Whether you want to receive an Ivy League education to pursue a doctorate or you simply want to complete a standard undergraduate degree from a local state university, we’ve got the tools and resources to aid you in the process. Feel free to contact us today to learn more about what we offer and how we can help.


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