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How to Become a National Merit Scholar

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What’s Covered:


It’s no secret that paying for college can be expensive. Besides loans, scholarships are another good option to help you pay for your education. There are many scholarships to consider, one of them being a National Merit Scholarship.


The National Merit Scholarship Program, which began in 1955, is an academic competition that approximately 1.5 million students enter each year. The program awards scholarships to students based on academic achievement and state representation. In this post, we share what the National Merit Scholarships are and how you can qualify to win one.


What is the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test?


The National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, also known as the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), is taken by high school students during their 10th and 11th-grade years. This test can help you qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program. As a whole, this program recognizes academic achievement and is an opportunity to win a merit-based scholarship.


Criteria to Become a Commended Scholar, Semifinalist, and Finalist


In order to even be considered as a commended scholar, semifinalist, or finalist, you must meet some basic requirements that are listed at the beginning of your PSAT:


1. Enrolled as a high school student, progressing normally toward graduation.

2. Plan to enroll full-time in college starting the fall following high school graduation.

3. Must be a U.S. citizen or U.S. lawful permanent resident planning to become a U.S. citizen.


Commended Scholar


Commended students represent more than two-thirds of the approximately 50,000 high-scoring students on the PSAT/NMSQT. There will be approximately 34,000 Commended students in 2021.


Students are selected to be commended based on a nationally applied Selection Index score that varies from year to year. The cutoff score is expected to be 207. Unfortunately, Commended students do not meet the cut-off to be named semifinalists in their states. Commended students are, however, recognized for their outstanding academic promise with this title.




Semifinalists are designated on a state-representational basis to make sure that the talent pool is evenly spread across the United States and make up the top 1% of scorers by state. These students make up about one-third of the 50,000 high scorers. This title will be designated to about 16,000 students in 2021. Scores of Semifinalists are extremely high, but in order to be considered for a National Merit Scholarship, they must advance to the Finalist standing. 


In order to make it to the Finalist standing, students must meet high academic standards and certain requirements. These requirements are:


  1. Continue to meet the program entry requirements published in the PSAT/NMSQT® Student Guide.
  2. Be enrolled in the last year of high school and be planning to enroll full time in college in the fall of 2021 or be enrolled in the first year of college, if you completed grades 9 through 12 in three years or less.
  3. Attend high school in the United States, District of Columbia, or U.S. commonwealths and territories; or, meet the citizenship requirements for students attending high school outside the United States 
  4. Be fully endorsed for Finalist standing and recommended for a National Merit Scholarship by your high school principal (or school official designated by the principal). 
  5. Have a record of consistently very high academic performance in all of grades 9 through 12 and in any college course work taken. If you are now in college, high academic performance must continue.
  6. Submit the completed application to your high school office as soon as possible using NMSC’s Online Scholarship Application (OSA). The Online Scholarship application consists of your academic transcript, SAT scores (completed by fall of senior year), activity and leadership information, and an essay. 
  7. Provide any additional documentation and information that NMSC requests.


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Approximately 15,000 Semifinalists will advance to become a finalist. About 7,600 Finalists are then notified that they’ve been selected to receive a Merit Scholarship award. There are three types of awards:


1. National Merit $2500 Scholarships


Every Finalist competes for these scholarships. Students are awarded based on state representation. Winners are chosen without consideration of financial circumstances or major/career path. These are single-payment scholarships. 


2. Corporate-sponsored awards


These awards are renewable for four years of college or as one-time awards. They’re given by corporate sponsors to children of employees or residents of a community where the corporation is located. They can also go towards a finalist with career plans that the corporate sponsor wishes to support. 


3. College-sponsored awards


Winners are selected from Finalists who’ve been accepted for admission by a specific college, and who have informed the National Merit Scholarship Corporation that that college is their first choice. These awards are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate college.


National Merit Semifinalist Cutoff Scores 2020-2021


Cutoff scores to qualify as a semifinalist vary for each state. Below is the 2021 list of cutoff scores for each state. Check back soon for an updated list for 2022.


State Selection Index Score
Alabama 212
Alaska 212
Arizona 218
Arkansas 212
California 221
Colorado 217
Connecticut 220
Delaware 219
District of Columbia 222
Florida 216
Georgia 219
Hawaii 217
Idaho 214
Illinois 219
Indiana 215
Iowa 212
Kansas 214
Kentucky 214
Louisiana 212
Maine 213
Maryland 221
Massachusetts 222
Michigan 216
Minnesota 218
Mississippi 211
Missouri 214
Montana 210
Nebraska 213
Nevada 215
New Hampshire 215
New Jersey 222
New Mexico 211
New York 220
North Carolina 217
North Dakota 209
Ohio 215
Oklahoma 211
Oregon 217
Pennsylvania 217
Rhode Island 216
South Carolina 212
South Dakota 209
Tennessee 215
Texas 219
Utah 212
Vermont 212
Virginia 221
Washington 220
West Virginia 209
Wisconsin 213
Wyoming 209


PSAT Study Resources


In order to potentially become a National Merit Scholar, it’s important to get a head start on your PSATs! The PSAT contains three sections: writing and language, reading, and math. You can prepare by taking practice tests and practicing good test-taking techniques, such as learning when to guess and when to eliminate questions. 


Check out these resources for more study tips:


How to Study for the PSAT: 6 Tips

What is a Good PSAT Score?
10 Hardest PSAT Grammar Questions

10 Hardest PSAT Reading Questions


How Does the PSAT Impact Your College Chances?


The PSAT won’t impact your admissions chances—but it is a good way to prepare for the SAT if you choose to take it. The PSAT can be a good indicator of how well you’ll do on your SAT


Colleges use your SAT/ACT score to inform academic index. The Academic Index uses information from a student’s transcript and test scores to combine a student’s overall academic performance into a single numerical score. This can serve as the cutoff for whether or not your application is even considered, so aiming for a high score on the SAT can increase your chances of making it past the cutoff.


If you’re a commended scholar or semifinalist, then you should list it as an academic honor in the Common App, as that can help boost your application.

To understand how your test scores impact your chances, use our free chancing engine. It can also tell you your chances if you apply test-optional and whether you should apply test-optional for certain schools.



Short Bio
Asia is a graduate of Tulane University where she studied English and Public Health. She's held multiple writing positions and has experience writing about everything from furniture to higher education to nutrition and exercise.