Use our “How to Become a National Merit Scholar” tips below to get you started on your college career.
1. Maximize your score on the PSAT/NMSQT
The first step to becoming a National Merit scholar is to achieve a top score on the PSAT, which is also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). You must take the PSAT in October of your junior year of high school. So, in order to qualify as a National Merit scholar, you must be enrolled as a high school student. In addition, you must be a citizen or a lawful permanent resident of the United States. (PSAT Practice Test)
2. Not every school offers National Merit Scholarships
The extent to which recognition through the National Merit scholarship program is rewarded varies by school. Some institutions provide a large financial payment to students for each of the four years of their undergraduate careers, some provide a smaller lump sum upon matriculation as a freshman, and some offer no reward at all. Naturally, it is very important to know which of your target schools compensate National Merit scholars the most. This information could have a great deal of influence over your choice of school, as well as over the amount of effort you put into your National Merit scholarship campaign. After all, if your dream school does not offer rewards to National Merit scholars, it would be silly to waste your time and effort studying for the PSAT or preparing an attractive Merit Scholarship application.
3. Get the Official Student Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT
Every year, the College Board publishes a comprehensive and detailed guide to the PSAT/NMSQT. This document is available at the College Board website. It includes a practice exam and comprehensive information about the test, including a content outline and a description of the testing conditions. The bulletin published by the College Board is well regarded as a preparatory tool for the PSAT/NMSQT. Reading it carefully will eliminate any risk of an unpleasant surprise on the day of the exam.
4. Make use of the other resources provided by the College Board
Besides the exam guide, the College Board provides a number of other resources for aspiring National Merit scholars and anyone else who is planning to apply to college. For instance, there is an online tool you can use to plan for college and career. It has a wealth of features, including an online score report and a personalized plan for study. It also provides you with a range of appropriate colleges and careers based on your interests and your responses on a personality test. The College Board online tool can help you find the schools where National Merit scholars are rewarded most highly.
5. Learn the mechanics of the National Merit scholarship program
The first step on the way to recognition as a National Merit scholar is to be recognized as a commended student. From these, semifinalists are determined by their selection index score, which is the sum of the verbal, math, and writing scores. In most states, you must score in the top two percent to qualify as a semifinalist. Finally, finalists are selected based on their National Merit applications, which incorporate a broad body of work.
6. Determine the criteria for recognition as a National Merit scholarship finalist
It is a huge honor to be designated as a National Merit semifinalist. It requires a top performance on a very difficult standardized test. However, if you want to become a finalist, you must demonstrate excellence in a wider range of pursuits. Specifically, you must complete the Merit Scholarship application, which includes a complete high school transcript, a summary of your academic and extracurricular activities and achievements, a school recommendation, and a self-descriptive essay. Only about 16,000 students are selected as National Merit finalists each year.
7. Mark important dates on your calendar
The National Merit scholarship program operates on roughly the same schedule every year. The semi-finalists are named in early September, at which point they receive an application packet through their high schools. The finalists will be identified in February. It is important to know these dates so that you can allocate your time properly.
8. Consider the Special Scholarships
Besides the normal National Merit Scholarships, there are a number of scholarships funded by business organizations. Each of these sponsors has its own criteria for applicants, though at minimum candidates must meet the requirements of the National Merit Scholarship Program. Most of these scholarships are delivered in a single lump sum, but some are renewable for the four years of the recipient’s undergraduate career. In order to receive one of these scholarships, a student must submit an application to the sponsor organization. The candidates for these Special Scholarships are drawn from a pool of students whose PSAT scores were high, though not quite high enough to earn a place among the finalists. The winners of the Special Scholarships are selected by a group of National Merit Scholarship Corporation employees. The selection is based on a thorough examination of each student’s skills and accomplishments in high school.
9. It is easier to qualify in a less populated state
The National Merit Scholarships are administered with no regard to gender, race, religion, or ethnicity. However, there is one determinant of success that is unrelated to your score on the PSAT: the population of the state in which you live. This is one of the sneaky secrets of the National Merit Scholarship program: it is easier to qualify if you live in Wyoming than if you live in New Jersey. This is because the semi-finalists are the highest-scoring students in each state. Therefore, states with fewer students will be less competitive. Obviously, it would not be practical to move to a different state simply to improve your chances of earning a scholarship, but it is a good thing to keep in mind as you navigate the process, so you can adjust your expectations accordingly.
10. Learn the disbursement policy for your scholarship
If you are lucky enough to receive a National Merit scholarship, it will be disbursed to you in one of a few ways. Some students receive their scholarships in a single lump sum, mailed out in early September of their freshman year. Others receive money every September and January of their first four years in college. Colleges that operate on the quarter system may disburse payments three times a year: in September, December, and March.