What Is National Merit?

Every year, National Merit Scholarships are awarded to a top percentile of PSAT (preliminary SAT)/NMSQT scorers in any given state. Not only is the award considered highly prestigious for college applicants, but it also carries a monetary award to help fund college tuition for recipients. So what does this award mean? Will it help you get into college? Read on to find out.

Program Requirements

In order to be eligible for the program, students must take the PSAT in their third year of high school. For most students, this is their junior year. This means that for students who take the exam this year, scholarships will be awarded in 2018, presumably when the students will matriculate as college freshmen.

All students taking the PSAT as high school juniors (or in their third year of high school) are automatically entered into the competition; you do not need to apply through any additional forms unless you are named a Semifinalist. Although you may take the PSAT earlier in high school, you won’t be considered for a National Merit Scholarship. (Learn more about taking standardized tests in earlier in “A Guide to Freshman and Sophomore Years.”)

For a full list of 2017 requirements (Finalists only; see below for an explanation of the other tiers), visit the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) website.

National Merit Scholarship Program Tiers

There are about 1.6 million entrants for the program (students who take the PSAT in their junior years of high school). Of these, about 50,000 with the highest nationally applied Selection Index scores qualify for recognition in the program.

Commended Students

About two-thirds of high scorers (roughly 34,000 entrants) receive Letters of Commendation indicating outstanding performance on the exam. These students will not continue in the competition, although some may be eligible for Special Scholarships from businesses or corporations. (Read on for more details)


Roughly one-third of high scorers (about 16,000 entrants) are named Semifinalists. Since NMSC guarantees representation of all states, students qualify as Semifinalists based on receiving the highest scores within their states, which vary state-by-state. This means qualifying scores are lower in some states than others. Typically, states with higher populations of college-bound students, such as California and New York, require higher scores for semifinalists, since the average scores of all entrants who live in these places tend to be higher.


NMSC provides application materials for becoming National Merit Finalists through the Semifinalists’ high schools. Before advancing, Semifinalists must meet all academic standards and other requirements outlined by NMSC. About 15,000 Finalist are notified by mail in February.


Beginning in March, about 7,500 Finalists will be notified that they will receive Merit Scholarships®. They are evaluated based on several criteria: the Finalist’s academic record, information about the school’s curricula and grading system, two sets of test scores, the high school official’s written recommendation, information about the student’s activities and leadership, and the Finalist’s essay.

Types of Awards

National Merit® $2,500 Scholarships

All Finalists are considered for one-time $2,500 awards. These are awarded on a state-representational basis without consideration of family financial circumstances, college choice, or major and career plans.

Corporate-Sponsored Merit Scholarship Awards

NMSC programs are also available through corporations, company foundations, and other business organizations. Usually, these awards are available for children of a sponsor’s employees or members, although some may be open to residents of a community in which a company has operations or for students with college major or career plans the sponsor wants to encourage. According to its website, NMSC provides the following services to corporate sponsors:

  • identifying candidates who meet a sponsor’s criteria and processing applications,
  • processing Entry Forms (online and hard copy) for scholarship program participants,
  • selecting scholarship winners from the candidate pool,
  • assisting with Scholar announcements,
  • providing certificates to present to Scholars,
  • distributing scholarship payments to Scholars, and
  • monitoring and reporting on the progress of Scholars toward completion of their undergraduate degrees.

The monetary values of the scholarships are selected by their sponsors. Every year, there are about 1,000 corporate-sponsored Merit Scholarship® awards for Finalists in the National Merit® Scholarship Program and about 1,200 Special Scholarships for exceptional participants who are not Finalists. (See below for a note about Special Scholarships.)

Click here for more information on these scholarships.

College- and University-Sponsored Merit Scholarship® Awards

About 4,000 Merit Scholarships are sponsored by colleges and universities are available for Finalists who have been accepted to and plan to attend their schools. The scholarships range from $500-$2,000 per year and are renewable for up to four years of undergraduate study. Visit the NMSC website for more information.

Special Scholarships

About 1,200 National Merit® Program participants who are outstanding but not Finalists may be awarded Special Scholarships provided by corporations and business organizations.

National Merit® Awards and College Applications

Receiving any scholarship has a lot of benefits, especially if it carries a monetary value. (Check out our guide to scholarship tips and resources for more scholarships you may be eligible to receive.) National Merit® Awards are considered particularly prestigious.

However, these awards are not terribly unique, so you won’t necessarily be accepted to your pick of top colleges on the basis of your National Merit® award alone. On the reverse side, you also don’t need to have the award to get into a top college.

Of course, the more selective your award is, the better it will look to colleges. So if you are a Commended Student, you don’t necessarily need to include the award in the Honors section of your college applications if you have higher honors to include and not enough space. However, if you are a Finalist, it’s probably a good idea to include it. Check out “An Updated Guide to the 2016-17 Common App Honors Section” for more tips on what awards to include and where to put them on your application.


Even if you don’t win a National Merit® award or aren’t eligible to receive one, there are many benefits to taking the PSAT. As we discuss in “When Should I Take the SAT or ACT?” it provides good practice for the SAT, which you will probably take for the first time in Spring of your junior year. Although the tests are not identical, they cover similar material. You will also prepare for the tests in similar ways (e.g. through flashcards, practice tests, and so on) and it is a good idea to start early.

Since you will receive a score breakdown and areas of to improve on your PSAT score report, you will also have a better idea of where you need to focus your studying efforts for the SAT. As we explain in “Are PSAT Scores Related to SAT Scores?” your scores may change simply because you will have learned more by the time you take your SAT, but your PSAT scores still provide a good starting point that will help you figure out your strengths and weaknesses.

Taking the PSAT can also help you with your college search. When you take the test, you may elect to opt into College Board’s Student Search Service. This service shares your contact information with schools where your academic profile is similar to that of their typical applicant, though it does not release your scores, grades, or extracurricular interests to colleges. In turn, colleges will then contact you about events in your area, programs, and other information.

Want to learn more about the PSAT, National Merit® Awards, and other aspects of the college process? Looking for help with your applications, standardized tests, or essays—or just want some general guidance? CollegeVine is here to help. Fill out our consultation form below and one of our specialists will reach out for a free consultation to discuss your needs and how the program might benefit you.

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.