For over 65 years, the National Merit Scholarship Program has recognized and awarded scholarships to academically talented high school students in the United States. Established in 1955, the program is conducted by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), a not-for-profit organization that receives funding from corporate sponsors, individual donors, and college and universities. The program aims to identify and support high-performing students in their pursuit of higher education.
Entry into the National Merit Scholarship Program is based on the results of the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT), which is administered each year to high school juniors across the country. Approximately 1.5 million students take the test annually, and from these students, approximately 50,000 are recognized as high scorers and are designated as either Commended Students or Semifinalists in the program. Semifinalists must meet additional requirements, such as submitting an application and academic records, to become Finalists.
The NMSC awards three types of National Merit Scholarships: National Merit $2500 Scholarships, corporate-sponsored scholarships, and college-sponsored scholarships. National Merit $2500 Scholarships are awarded to Finalists who meet the criteria set by the NMSC, which includes demonstrating academic excellence, leadership, and participation in school and community activities. Corporate-sponsored scholarships are awarded by various corporations to Finalists who are the children of their employees or who live in communities where the corporation operates. College-sponsored scholarships are awarded by colleges and universities to Finalists who have been accepted for admission and meet the criteria set by the institution.
Winning a National Merit Scholarship is a prestigious achievement and can provide significant financial support for a student’s college education. National Merit Scholars are often highly sought after by colleges and universities and may also receive recognition from other organizations and academic institutions.
However, the National Merit Scholarship Program is not without controversy. Some critics argue that the program favors students from wealthy families who have access to test preparation resources and private schools, while disadvantaging students from low-income families and underrepresented minorities. Others argue that the program is too heavily focused on test scores and fails to recognize other important qualities and achievements in students.
Despite these criticisms, the National Merit Scholarship Program remains a highly respected and competitive academic program that recognizes and rewards outstanding high school students for their academic achievements. For many students, winning a National Merit Scholarship is a significant accomplishment that opens doors to new opportunities and helps to fund their higher education dreams.
How to enter the National Merit Scholarship Program:
To enter the National Merit Scholarship Program, high school juniors who meet the program’s entry and participation requirements must take the PSAT/NMSQT® at a designated time during their high school program. Each year’s PSAT/NMSQT® serves as the qualifying test for that year’s scholarship competition. For instance, students who take the 2021 PSAT/NMSQT® are eligible for scholarships that will be awarded in 2023, whereas those who take the 2022 PSAT/NMSQT® will be considered for scholarships to be awarded in 2024.
It’s important to note that registration for the test is handled through the student’s high school rather than on an individual basis. Students who are interested in participating in the National Merit Scholarship Program should contact their counselor at the start of the school year to make arrangements for taking the PSAT/NMSQT® at their school in the fall.
It’s worth noting that only the PSAT/NMSQT® is accepted as the official route of entry to the National Merit Scholarship Program. The PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9 will not be considered for entry.
Student Entry Requirements:
To be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program, students must meet specific entry requirements. These include:
- Taking the PSAT/NMSQT in the specified year of their high school program and no later than their third year of grades 9 through 12, irrespective of their grade classification or educational pattern.
- Being enrolled as high school students, whether in a traditional school or homeschooled, and progressing normally towards graduation or completion of high school. They must also plan to accept admission to college no later than the fall following the completion of high school.
- Attending high school in the United States, the District of Columbia, or a U.S. commonwealth or territory.
- For students attending high school outside the United States to be eligible, they must be a U.S. citizen or a U.S. lawful resident (or have applied for permanent residence, with the application not being denied) and intend to become a U.S. citizen at the earliest opportunity allowed by law.
Meeting these entry requirements is crucial for students who wish to be considered for the National Merit Scholarship Program. It ensures that the program is open to students who are dedicated to academic excellence and committed to pursuing higher education.
Merit Scholarship Awards:
Between March and mid-June, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) announces the selection of approximately 7,250 Finalists to receive a Merit Scholarship award. These awards are of three types: National Merit $2500 Scholarships, Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards, and College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards.
The National Merit $2500 Scholarships are available to every Finalist, and winners are chosen on a state-representational basis by a committee of college admission officers and high school counselors. These scholarships are single-payment awards and are not based on the family’s financial status, the student’s college choice, or their major and career plans.
Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards are designated by corporate sponsors to either children of their employees or members, residents of a community where the company operates, or Finalists with career plans that the sponsor wants to encourage. These scholarships may be renewable for four years of undergraduate study or may be one-time awards.
College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards are chosen by officials of each sponsor college from Finalists who have been accepted for admission and have declared that the sponsor college or university is their first choice. These awards are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study.
Merit Scholarship awards are supported by NMSC’s own funds and about 400 independent sponsors, including corporations and businesses, company foundations, professional associations, and colleges and universities. Finalists who want to apply for a Merit Scholarship award should refer to the Requirements and Instructions for Semifinalists in the 2023 National Merit Scholarship Program for the published deadlines to report a sponsor college as their first choice.
National Merit Scholarship Program: How it Works
The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic competition for recognition and scholarships that began in 1955. It awards around $30 million annually to high school students in the United States who show exceptional academic ability and potential for success in rigorous college studies. The program operates on a state-representational basis, and all winners of the scholarships are chosen based on their abilities, skills, and accomplishments.
Semifinalists: Qualification and Selection
In early September, more than 16,000 students are notified that they have qualified as Semifinalists. This notification represents approximately one-third of the 50,000 high scorers on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT). 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.
Finalists: Advancement and Recognition
In February, over 15,000 Semifinalists are notified that they have advanced to Finalist standing. High school principals are also notified and provided with a Certificate of Merit to present to each Finalist. Finalists have demonstrated outstanding academic ability and potential for success in rigorous college studies. They are selected on the basis of their academic record, information about the school’s curriculum 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.
Merit Scholarship Awards: Types and Selection
Merit Scholarship awards are of three types: National Merit® $2500 Scholarships, Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards, and College-sponsored Merit Scholarship awards. National Merit® $2500 Scholarships are awarded on a state-representational basis, and every Finalist competes for these single-payment scholarships. 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 are designated by corporate sponsors 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 are selected by officials of each sponsor college from Finalists who have been accepted for admission and have informed NMSC that the sponsor college or university is their first choice. These awards are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study. Merit Scholarship awards are supported by some 400 independent sponsors and by NMSC’s own funds.
The National Merit Scholarship Program is a prestigious academic competition that recognizes and awards outstanding high school students in the United States. The program operates on a state-representational basis, with Semifinalists and Finalists selected based on their exceptional academic ability and potential for success in rigorous college studies. The Merit Scholarship awards, which are supported by independent sponsors and NMSC’s own funds, provide financial assistance to help winners pursue their academic goals.