If you are a high school student who is considering scholarships as an option for funding a part or all of your college tuition, you may be overwhelmed by all the work it entails. Some scholarships are only available through grueling application processes. Others are not options unless you have already been accepted to a particular school or program. It is easy to find yourself buried in paperwork and lost in the process. But, did you know you could make the semifinal round for at least one scholarship without even knowing you applied for it?

The National Merit Scholarship Program is an academic scholarship competition founded in 1955 and administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. It seeks to recognize academic achievement, particularly through the lens of the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), also sometimes known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). This test serves as the annual qualifying test for entry into the National Merit Scholarship competition, and eligible students are automatically entered for consideration.

To find out if you could qualify, read on!

Who is eligible?

Most students take the PSAT because they want to practice for their SATs and gain some understanding of where their standardized test skills place them. Many do not even realize that eligible high school juniors who take the PSAT are automatically considered for a National Merit Scholarship. Entering is as simple as taking the PSAT. To be eligible, you must be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident seeking citizenship. You must also be in your third year of high school and on track to graduate normally. Though you may take the exam as a freshman or sophomore, you will not be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship until you take it as a junior.

To read more about the National Merit Scholarship Program, check out the CollegeVine guide, “What is National Merit?”   

What is the format of the test?

The PSAT was redesigned in 2015. It still tests reasoning skills, but in keeping with the changes made to the SAT now has an increased emphasis on the knowledge and application of skills required in real life. The test is administered over 2 hours and 45 minutes, and is divided into three sections: reading, writing, and math. Each section has roughly 45 questions and a calculator is allowed on most, but not all, of the math section. To read more about how the PSAT is scored, and how your scores might correlate to the SAT, check out the CollegeVine article, “Are PSAT Scores Related to SAT Scores?” 

How do I qualify? 

The process is surprisingly simple. First, take the test during your junior year of high school. Then, if your scores are high enough, you could qualify for scholarship consideration or formal recognition. Though you may eventually be asked to submit a complete application, this isn’t necessary unless you have already been named a Semifinalist. 

What levels of recognition are there?

Each year there are approximately 1.6 million high school juniors who take the PSAT and by doing so, automatically enter into the National Merit Scholarship Program. Of these, approximately the top three percent, or about 50,000 students, qualify for recognition.

Roughly two-thirds of the qualified students receive Letters of Commendation recognizing their achievement. Commended Students do not advance in the program, but may choose to include the honor on their college application. Though this isn’t a major deal to most college admissions committees, it is a good thing to include if you don’t have many other formal honors to list. A Letter of Commendation basically serves as recognition of high achievement on a standardized test. 

The remaining third of the high scorers then become Semifinalists, based on how their scores rank within their state. It is harder to become a Semifinalist if you come from a high-scoring state, since the average scores are higher and you thus must perform exceptionally well in order to stand out. Semifinalists are invited to submit a complete application including grades, SAT scores, and other important documentation of their academic and leadership skills. This includes materials similar to a college application, such as an essay and letters of recommendation. Of the approximately 16,000 Semifinalists, 15,000 will go on to become Finalists.

About 7,500 Winners will then be selected based on grades, test scores, written recommendations, and the submitted essay. These $2,500 one-time scholarships are need-blind, but they are not the only awards available.

Are there other opportunities for recognition through this program?

There are several other ways to be recognized through the National Merit Scholarship Program or your PSAT scores.

The National Hispanic Recognition Program, also based on PSAT scores, recognizes approximately 5,000 hispanic students for academic achievement each year through the College Board’s National Hispanic Recognition Program. Though there are no scholarships or cash awards available, lists of these students are distributed to many colleges and universities nationwide who will use them to guide recruitment.

Up until 2015, the National Achievement Scholarship Program was another popular achievement award, also run by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation and based on PSAT scores. Though you may still hear about it, it is no longer available, as its funding has been reallocated through the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) to recognize high-achieving, under-represented college graduates.

Other special awards are available to Finalists and non-Finalists alike. These are generally sponsored by specific universities or corporations. Some are reserved for students who are accepted to specific schools, and others are reserved by a corporation for the children of their employees.

What score do I need to qualify?

Qualifying scores vary by state and year. Commended Students generally score in the top 3% of all eligible students. Each state is allowed a certain number of Semifinalists, with the exact figure based on its population. Therefore, the score cut-off for Semifinalists will vary by state based on the spread of scores in that state. In general, semifinalists represent roughly the top 0.5% of PSAT scorers in the country.    

As noted above, finalists and scholarship winners are not selected based on scores alone. Instead, Semifinalists submit a number of application materials, including transcripts, recommendations, and essays. Finalists and winners are selected based on these applications rather than their test scores alone, so it’s impossible to say what the exact score cutoff is. 

What can I do to improve my chances in the National Merit Scholarship Program?

You should start your prep work early. Though only high school juniors are eligible for the program, you can also take the PSAT as a sophomore or even as a freshman. This is a good idea if you want to get a better idea of the test’s format and content. It will be easier to study if you have already experienced the test and have some idea of what to expect. You can also use the results of your earlier testing to help shape your studying.

Preparation and practice tests can have a big impact on standardized test scores. Some test prep materials include tutoring, prep courses, and proctored practice exams. Your guidance counselor or librarian might be able to direct you to other resources or test prep books. Studying for the PSAT is doubly beneficial because it can also serve as SAT studying.

If you do receive word that you have been named a Semifinalist, you should take your preparation to the next level. Meet with your counselor or a trusted teacher to discuss your application. Make sure to have all of your materials edited and seek advice about your essay before writing a first draft. Your application will matter even more than your test scores in determining whether or not you are named a Finalist, so make sure to devote plenty of time and attention to it.

Ultimately, the PSAT is not as important as the SAT for the purpose of college admissions, but that doesn’t mean that you should brush it off. The National Merit Scholarship Program can be an asset not just in terms of finances, but also in terms of prestige. To a college admissions committee, a National Merit Scholarship Winner is someone whose achievements have already been assessed to a high standard. It is a significant honor to include on your college application. Though the PSAT might seem like just another practice test, it is worth the time and energy for you to study and prepare ahead of time. 

If you are wondering where to start with your studying or considering an academic tutor, visit the CollegeVine Tutoring Program to see what we can do for you.

Or, if you need more guidance and want an experienced, successful college student to help you along the way, check out our unique CollegeVine Mentoring Program, where we build stronger students, leaders, and achievers.

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist