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The Scoop on National Merit Scholarships

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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.

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an 18-month-long competition for academic recognition and college scholarships. Here's how it works.

How to Get in the Running for a National Merit Scholarship

National Merit Scholarships are available only to high school students who take the PSAT (Preliminary SAT) in October of their junior year. You must also be a full-time high school student and a U.S. citizen to qualify.

How to Win a National Merit Scholarship

Winning a National Merit Scholarship depends on more than your PSAT score. Your academic record, SAT scores, extracurricular and leadership experiences, and an essay are also considered. 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 Scholarships provide $2,500 towards the student's freshman year of college. Even better, winning this scholarship (or being a finalist) is prestigious. Some colleges even boast about the number of "National Merit Scholars" they enroll.
  • College-sponsored Merit Scholarships are four-year renewable awards ranging from $500 to $2,000 per year if the winner attends the college sponsoring the award.
  • Corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarships are four-year renewable awards ranging from $500 to $10,000 per year, or single-payment awards ranging from $2,500 to $5,000. Qualifications are set by the company.

The Steps to Becoming a National Merit Scholar

The National Merit Scholarship competition begins with the PSAT in October of your junior year of high school and ends in spring of your senior year. Students must pass several qualifying stages to receive a National Merit Scholarship:

Program Recognition Students. The 50,000 top scorers on the PSAT are selected out of about 1.5 million entrants. These students are notified in April of their junior year.

Semifinalists. Chosen from the Program Recognition Students, the Semifinalists are the highest PSAT scorers from each state. Only they can apply for National Merit Scholarships.

Commended Students. In late September, about two thirds of the entrants who were not selected to be semifinalists receive Letters of Commendation. They are now out of the running for the National Merit Scholarships, but some may receive merit scholarships sponsored by corporations.

Finalists. In February, about 15,000 finalists are named. Their high schools are notified and so are two colleges they've selected. Reaching this level of recognition is noteworthy and may lead to additional scholarships from colleges and universities.

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

Special Scholarship recipients. In March, 740 students will be awarded scholarships provided by corporate sponsors.

Is Applying Worth It?

Applying for a National Merit Scholarship isn't easy. The selection process is lengthy, competitive and rigorous. But, to many colleges, the title "National Merit Scholar" is synonymous with academic excellence and leadership. It's a prestigious level of recognition that may open doors to new educational opportunities as well as additional scholarships.

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