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A lot of the National Merit Scholarship process depends on a strict timetable throughout the high school years.
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Every high school student has a chance to win the National Merit Scholarship through their efforts in their junior year. Let’s discuss what it takes to win and what’s waiting for you after winning.

Part of winning the NMSC is scoring a high SAT score; our SAT prep courses are designed to get you thoroughly ready in time.

National Merit Scholarship Competition Timeline

A lot of the National Merit Scholarship process depends on a strict timetable throughout the high school years:

Time Event
Sophomore Year PSAT preparation; work on getting a score above your state’s cutoff, e.g. 1400 or above.
Junior Year - Fall Take the PSAT. Remember that in order to qualify for the competition, you need to score in the top 1%.
Senior Year - Spring & Summer Prepare for and take the SAT. Work to score as high as possible, to prove your PSAT score wasn’t a fluke.
Senior Year - Early October Submit your complete NMSC application with requested materials, transcript, and test scores.
Senior Year - Early February Final notification on whether or not you have been selected as a Finalist.
Senior Year - Early May Receive word if you’ve won any of the various available National Merit Scholarships or not.

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What Are The Entry Requirements?

To qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, as a high school student, the requirements aren’t as crazy as one might imagine.

If you, or your child, are interested in qualifying, then the following basic conditions must be met:

  • You are either a U.S. citizen or U.S. lawful permanent resident on track to become a citizen.
  • You are a currently-enrolled high school student, on track towards regular graduation.
  • You are preparing for full-time college enrollment, starting in fall after your high school graduation.
  • Take the PSAT as a high school junior and score in the top 1%.

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As long as you meet those basic requirements, then you are qualified to compete for the National Merit Scholarship. Getting in the front door though is only the first step to success. 

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Score As High As Possible On The PSAT

While qualifying for a National Merit Scholarship isn’t difficult, becoming a finalist requires scoring in the top 1% on the PSAT.

While there is some variance from state to state, most high school students need to score over 1400 out of a possible 1520 points to first qualify for Semifinalist status. Being a Semifinalist only means that you are allowed to compete for Finalist standing; there’s still more work to be done, which we’ll get to soon.

The question now though is - how do you get a top 1% score? The most basic strategy to use is:

  • Find and use high-quality test prep materials
  • Identify your subject weaknesses early and work on them

Remember that you need to show proficiency in three main areas - Reading, Writing, and Math. The first thing to do is to find and use high-quality test prep materials that mimic the test sections as closely as possible.

There are a wide variety of practice tests available; you want to use materials that mimic the real thing as closely as possible. Also, understand that the PSAT itself is testing for you’ve already learned so far in high school, but also for the skills you will need to succeed in college.

Simple memorization alone won’t cut it, you need to work your critical thinking muscles too. Once you take a few practice tests, assess your scores and see what needs improvement. Remember, the National Merit Scholarship competition uses a Selection Index to pick those qualified for the next round. This index is based on your Math, Reading, and Writing scores, so succeeding at all three sections is imperative. 

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Don’t Forget About The Application

Besides scoring high on the PSAT, you also need to submit an excellent application in order to move onto the next phase of the National Merit competition. 

The application itself consists of submitting the following materials:

Application Materials Description
SAT Scores Your SAT scores need to be turned in by the fall of your senior year. Point-wise, 1400 or above is the mark you want to try and hit, which should be comparable to what you scored on the PSAT anyway. What officials are checking on is to see if your PSAT score was basically a fluke performance or not. If both scores essentially match, then you should be okay.
Academic Transcripts A GPA score of 3.5 or higher is usually seen as the main standard to reach. Proficiency in AP and honors classes are examined too; if you haven’t taken many of them by your junior year, then it’s no good to worry about it. But if you’re a freshman moving into your sophomore year, definitely consider taking some if they fit with your overall goals for college too.
Personal Essay Use the essay to share your voice with the NMSC officials; the essay should showcase two things. First, it should display your ability to clearly and powerfully express yourself through words. Be mindful of spelling, grammar, syntax, etc. as you form and elaborate your ideas. Second, you should be able to share something significant about yourself that has informed and shaped your identity. This experience or trait should provide insight into what makes you tick and has helped you succeed up to this point.
High School Official Recommendation This is your chance for an outside voice to brag about your positive qualities and work ethic to competition officials. Think ahead to a teacher or counselor that you’ve spent extensive time with, and discuss with them the qualities and accomplishments you’ve already achieved. Help guide them through what the recommendation should be, so it best represents you through their eyes and voice.
Information About Your Extracurricular Activities Think here more about quality rather than quantity; officials are looking to see how you’ve developed and used your leadership and learning skills outside the classroom. Talk about those activities you’ve been passionately involved in and contributed to over time. If you’ve held leadership positions or contributed to an outside organization’s success, here’s the place to share those accomplishments.

The Types Of Available Scholarships

Once you’ve finally won a National Merit Scholarship, here are the actual monetary scholarships available and what they entail:

Scholarship Description
National Merit $2500 Scholarship Every Finalist is considered for a National Merit Scholarship but they are only awarded to 2,500 people. Winners are named per state and compete against other Finalists in their particular state. Final selections are made by a committee consisting of high school counselors and college admissions officers. The actual monetary award is a single, non-renewable $2500 payment. However, the prestige of winning provides additional value when applying for college as an officially recognized National Merit Scholar.
Corporate-Sponsored Scholarships Finalists are automatically considered based on their applications and other factors like parents’ employment, college major plans, etc. In 2017, over 200 corporations, businesses, and foundations committed funds to sponsoring National Merit Program scholarships. There is quite a bit of flexibility in regards to how these scholarships are distributed to students. Very often, children of parents who work for corporate sponsors are given first consideration. However, if a student’s intended major and interests line up with a corporate sponsor’s selection criteria, then that student could win a scholarship too. Corporate scholarships vary greatly in size and specifications.
College-Sponsored Scholarships If you’re a Finalist who does not receive either a $2500 Scholarship or Corporate-Sponsored Scholarship, you can still be in the running for a College-Sponsored Scholarship. Approximately 200 colleges sponsor scholarships through the NMSC, including schools such as Boston University, University of Chicago, and the University of Southern California. The main qualification you need to meet is indicating one of the college sponsors as your first-choice school on your NMSC application. The list itself is available online through the NMSC application portal; even if you’re unsure about your chances for admittance at a particular school, it is still better to list it as your first choice.

Final Tips For Success

Before you start diving into the process, take these tips to heart; they will definitely help you along the way:

Success Tip Description
Start PSAT Preparation Early Sophomore Year Make time your ally and work on mastering every section for the highest possible score to reach that top 1%.
Don’t Slack on Your SAT Preparation Address any weak points you may have had on certain sections and keep preparing and practice testing for your SAT. Work to make sure your real score is comparable to your PSAT score to keep you in the running.
Remember Quality Over Quantity When it comes to your application, the more thought you put into preparing your essay, extracurricular activities, and recommendation, the better off you will be. Show both thoughtfulness and passion, and don’t be afraid to help coach your recommendation person.
Make Research Your Best Friend Be mindful of your parents’ workplaces and go online to research the list of participating college sponsors. Go through the application process with all three levels of scholarship funding potentially covered. That way you won’t be solely reliant on only one source to come through.


For more information and tips, check out Prep Expert.

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Clay Cooper

Clay is a double-perfect scorer - within one week, he earned a 1600 on an official SAT and at 36 on an official ACT! Clay has also achieved 99th percentile scores on the PSAT, ISEE, GMAT, GRE, and LSAT. He has taught and developed courses for high school, college, and graduate-level standardized tests extensively around the country, and specializes in the field. He has studied law at Georgetown University Law Center and worked in the legal field as well, for attorneys, judges, and the Tennessee Attorney General.

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