The National Merit® Scholarship Program is an academic competition for recognition and college scholarships for high school students in the United States. It began in 1955, and at this point is a venerable institution run by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), a privately funded, not-for-profit organization. Every year, high school students across the country enter the program by taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, better known as the PSAT/NMSC (and commonly just referred to as the PSAT). The test measures reading, mathematics, language and writing abilities. The focus of the test is on ability rather than memorized knowledge. About 3.5 million students from about 22,000 high schools take the test each year, and of those, about 1.6 million meet requirements to enter the program.
Program Participation Requirements
No matter whether or not a student takes the PSAT/NMSC, they must meet certain requirements to compete in the National Merit Scholarship program. These include:
- Enrollment as a high school student that expects to graduate about 18 months after the test is taken. So those taking the test in October 2017 would graduate in the spring of 2019.
- Plans to enter college no later than the fall of 2019 after their high school graduation.
- Being a U.S. citizen or a U.S. lawful, permanent resident. It is acceptable to have applied for permanent residence and have the intent to become a U.S. citizen as soon as allowed.
- Taking the PSAT no later than the third year in grades 9 through 12, regardless of grade classification or educational pattern. So, normally, you would take the PSAT in the fall of your junior year.
Students are given a multiple choice answer sheet to determine eligibility. This answer sheet asks
- Are you enrolled as a high school student (traditional or homeschooled)?
- When will you complete or leave high school and enroll full time in college?
- How many total years will you spend in grades 9–12?
- Are you a citizen of the United States? Answers to this one are
- No, and
- No, but I am a U.S. lawful permanent resident (or have applied for permanent residence, the application for which has not been denied) and I intend to become a U.S. citizen at the earliest opportunity allowed by law.
No more need be done to enter the program if you are not yet a U.S. citizen, but if you end up qualifying as a Semifinalist or Special Scholarship candidate, and you have not yet become a U.S. citizen, you will need to send documentation to continue.
How to Enter the National Merit Scholarship Competition
Registration for the PSAT/NMSQT is by your high school. You don’t register directly individually. If you want to take the test, be sure to talk to your counselor at the very beginning of the school year, because the tests are in the fall. You can then enter the program by taking the test at the proper time and meeting the eligibility criteria. As explained earlier, those who took the PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of 2017 are eligible to compete for scholarships awarded in the spring of 2019 in their last year of school.
When to Take the PSAT/NMSQT
Students who are going to high school for the usual four years must take the PSAT in their third year, generally designated as their junior year.
Students who plan to graduate early and go on to college may participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program by taking the PSAT/NMSQT in the next to last year or last year they are in high school. However, if they wait until their last year, they will be competing for awards that are offered at the end of their first year in college rather than the end of their last year in high school.
Students who spend five years in grades 9 through 12 can participate by taking the PSAT/NMSQT in the their third and fourth years of high school. They must also submit a written request to enter the competition to the NMSC. The NMSC considers the qualifying score taken in their third year as the one that matters. The score in the fourth year must be the same or better to be in the National Merit Scholarship competition.
Anticipated PSAT/NMSQT test dates for 2018 according to the College Board website are
- Primary Test Day October 10, 2018
- Saturday Test Day October 13, 2018
- Alternate Test Day October 24, 2018
Check with your school to confirm these dates as the test day draws closer.
All Is Not Lost if You Miss the Test
Life happens, and sometimes people may be ill or have emergencies on the day designated to take the test. You may still be able to take the PSAT/NMSQT, but you or an official from your school must write to the NMSC no later than April 1. It would be much better to do it as soon as possible, however. Your chances of being able to meet the alternative requirements improve with the speed you can reach out to NMSC. The NMSC will send instructions, entry materials and a form for a school official to sign. Your letter to NMSC should include
- Your name and address
- Name and address of your high school
- Contact information of the person making the request
- Short description of why you missed the test
National Merit Scholarship Program Recognitions
Students who take the PSAT/NMSQT are ranked by their index scores, which are calculated by doubling the sum of the reading, writing and language, and math scores. The 50,000 of the 1.6 million participating in the program who have the highest PSAT/NMSQT® Selection Index scores are notified in September after they take the test (nearly a year later) if they qualify as a Semifinalist or a Commended Student.
About 34,000 of the 50,000 highest scorers are recognized as Commended Students and receive Letters of Commendation. They may not continue in the National Merit Scholarship competition, but some could still receive a Special Scholarship from a corporate sponsor.
Approximately 16,000 of the 50,000 who received top scores are designated as Semifinalists. This is done on a state-representational basis to ensure a cross-section of students from across the United States. In other words, they are the highest scorers from each state.
For Semifinalists to try to advance to Finalist standing they must
- Have a consistently high academic record throughout high school.
- Complete the NMSC’s Online Scholarship Application (OSA) and give it to the proper high school official. The official must complete some additional information and submit it to NMSC by a specified date. For those who took the test in 2017, semi-finalists had to submit finalist paperwork by October 11 (the month after they were notified of their semifinalist status).
- Take the SAT® and earn scores that are consistent with the scores they received on the PSAT/NMSQT. This must be done within a designated date range set up by the NSMC each year.
- File a request with the College Board SAT Program to have an official report of their SAT scores sent to NMSC.
- Write an essay.
- Fulfill all criteria required by the NMSC.
In February of the year after they are notified of their semifinalist status, finalists are notified by mail. For example, high scorers who took the PSAT in 2017 received notification of semifinalist status in September 2018 and notification of their Finalist status in February 2019. There are approximately 15,000 Finalists each year. Certificates are sent to their high school principals who award them to the students, and they become eligible to win National Merit Scholarship awards.
National Merit Scholarship Winners
National Merit Scholarship winners are chosen not just because they are Finalists, but also for their accomplishments and abilities, the content of a written essay and their high school official’s recommendation. There are about 8,700 scholarships offered in total including corporate and college sponsored scholarships, and the winners are notified by mail. There are approximately 420 sponsors.
Types of National Merit Scholarship Awards
- National Merit® $2500 Scholarships: These are awarded by the NMSC itself.
- Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarship awards: Corporations may award finalists who match the criteria they frame. For example, the student may be the child of an employee or live in the location where the corporation is headquartered. And sometimes a corporation may want to encourage students entering specific areas of study. These could be one-time scholarships or renew each of the four years the student is an undergraduate.
- College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards: Colleges may also sponsor scholarships for select National Merit Finalists who are attending the college. These scholarships may be renewed each of the student’s four undergraduate years. To be eligible, the person must list a sponsor college as their first choice on their Finalist application.
- Special scholarships: About 1,200 National Merit Program scholarships are awarded by corporations to participants who were not Finalists. To be considered, they must submit an entry form to the sponsor organization. If NMSC contacts someone who applied, they must submit a detailed scholarship application. These may be one-time awards or renewable for four years.
Don’t Miss this Opportunity
If you would like more information about the National Merit Scholarship Program, see their website and also the downloadable thePSAT/NMSQT® Student Guide. Along with requirements of entry and other information, the guide lists corporate and college sponsors. It also includes detailed information about PSAT/NMSQT including test regulations and sample test questions. You may go to the College Board website. The College Board is a non-profit organization that co-sponsors the PSAT/NMSQT.
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