The Scoop on National Merit Scholarships - COLLEGEdata - Pay Your Way

The Scoop on National Merit Scholarships

There's only one way to get a shot at a prestigious National Merit Scholarship. That's taking the PSAT in October of your junior year. Here's how it works.

The National Merit Scholarship Program is a competition for academic recognition and college scholarships. It is open only to college-bound high school students who take the PSAT (Preliminary SAT) in October of their junior year. Winning a National Merit Scholarship is prestigious, but even being a finalist counts highly with college admissions staff. Some colleges even boast about the number of "National Merit Scholars" they enroll.

How to Qualify for a National Merit Scholarship

You must be a full-time high school student, be a U.S. citizen (or on your way to being one), and take the PSAT in October of your junior year of high school. If you're already in your senior year of high school, it's too late. For more information on taking the PSAT, see our article PSAT: One Test, Two Purposes.

Winning a National Merit Scholarship depends on your academic record, PSAT and SAT scores, extracurricular and leadership experiences, and an essay. Other factors include recommendations from your school, your school's curricula and grading system, and your state residency. Your career or the college you select may also be factors.

What the Winners Get

The National Merit Scholarship Program awards three types of scholarships:

  • National Merit $2,500 Scholarships, which provide $2,500 towards the student's freshman year of college.
  • Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarships, which provide four-year renewable awards ranging from $500 to $10,000 per year or single-payment awards ranging from $2,500 to $5,000. Winners must be the children of employees of the sponsor corporation, residents of certain regions, or committed to a certain career.
  • College-Sponsored Merit Scholarships, which provide four-year renewable awards ranging from $500 to $2,000 per year. Winners must agree to attend the college sponsoring the award.

The Path to Becoming a National Merit Scholar

The National Merit Scholarship competition lasts 18 months, beginning with the PSAT in October of your junior year of high school. Students must pass several qualifying stages to become eligible for a scholarship.

Program Recognition Students. In April, following the October PSAT, about 50,000 top scorers are selected out of about 1.5 million entrants. If you are a Program Recognition Student, your high school will be notified, and you will select two colleges to be notified at a later date if you become a finalist.

Commended Students. In late September, about two thirds of the Program Recognition Students receive Letters of Commendation. Although Commended Students do not continue in the competition for Merit Scholarships, some become candidates for "Special Scholarships" sponsored by corporations and businesses.

Semifinalists. In early September, the National Merit Scholarship semifinalists are announced. The semifinalists are the highest scoring entrants from each state. If you are one of them, you will receive the National Merit Scholarship application, along with instructions and requirements. The requirements include keeping up your grades in your junior and senior years of high school, doing well on the SAT, writing a letter describing yourself, and submitting letters of recommendation from adults in your high school who know you well.

Finalists. In February of your senior year, if you have met all the requirements, you may be named a finalist. If you are, your high school will be notified and so will the two colleges you named earlier. About 15,000 finalists are selected. Reaching this level of recognition is noteworthy.

Winners. Finally, about half of the finalists are named "Merit Scholars" and receive National Merit Scholarships. These winners are notified beginning in March.

Start Early to Get the Recognition You Deserve

As you can see, getting a National Merit Scholarship means starting early and jumping through a lot of academic hoops. Those who earn National Merit Scholarships have really worked for them. But the recognition you receive for doing well may be worth the effort. If you have the opportunity to take the PSAT, get the ball rolling. Find out more at